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Picture Composition for 
Film and Television 

However faithful an image that serves to convey visual information may be, the process of selection 
will always reveal the maker's interpretation of what he considers relevant. 

E.H. Gombrich, The Image and the Eye 

Picture Composition for 
Film and Television 

Second edition 

Peter Ward 


Focal Press 

An imprint of Elsevier Science 

Linacre House, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8DP 

200 Wheeler Road, Burlington MA 01803 

First published 1996 
Second edition 2003 

Copyright © 2003 Peter Ward. All rights reserved 

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Preface xiii 

1 Invisible technique 1 

Learning the ropes 

A moving photograph 

Continuity cinema 

The shot 

The creation of 'invisible' technique 

Standard camerwork conventions 

Reahstic representation 

Mechanical reproduction 

Framing a shot 


Does the shot work? 


T see what you mean!' 

Why composition is important 

Control of composition 

Visual design techniques 

Cultural influences 

Changing fashions 


2 Alternative technique 17 

Jump cuts 

vi Contents 


It's magic 

Realism and imagination 

The film moment is always now 

Why people dislike the rejection of standard conventions 


Don't wake me up 

Definition of alternative conventions 



3 The lens, the eye and perception 26 


The imprint of the lens 

The eye and a lens 

Size constancy 

How do we understand what we are looking at? 

Characteristics of perception 


4 The lens and perspective 36 

Perception and depth 

Depth indicators and their relationship to the lens 

Focal length 

Angle of view 





The structural skeleton of a shot 

Horizon Hne and camera height as a compositional device 

Controlling space with choice of lens angle/camera distance 

The internal space of a shot 

Production style and lens angle 

Estimating distance 

Accentuating depth 


Contents vii 

5 Visual design 54 




Controlling composition 

Design techniques 

Grouping and organization 


Figure and ground 



Rhythm and visual beat 







Understanding an image 


6 Frame 83 

Composition and the frame 

Frame - an invisible focus of power 

Static viewpoint 

A hard cut-off 

Limited depth and perspective indicators 


The edge of frame as a reference 

Frames within frames 

A second frame 

Frame and divided interest 


7 The shape of the screen 90 

Aspect ratio 

The shape of the screen and composition 

viii Contents 

Viewfinder as an editing tool 

Could it have been different? 

The invention of a world format standard 

Widescreen returns 

Design of the TV aspect ratio 


The need for a universal video format 

16:9 television widescreen 

A reasonable compromise between competing aspect ratios 

The divine proportion 

Widescreen - the shape of a banknote 

Summary of film and television formats mentioned 

8 Widescreen composition and film 106 

Finding ways to compose for the new shape 

Widescreen advantages 

SelHng off the redundant format 

Pan and scan 

Cinematographers alarmed 

Boom in shot 

The growth of multiplexes 

Common tophne and super 35 


9 Widescreen composition and TV 112 



Aspect ratio conversion 

Protect and save 

Shooting for two formats 

Composing for 16:9 

Fidgety zooms 

Transitional period 

The viewer takes control 

Inserting 4:3 material into a 16:9 production 

Compilation programmes 

Distortion and definition 

Contents ix 

Widescreen equals spectacle 

Screen size 

Endnote, or in a different aspect ratio, NDNOT 


10 Past influences 123 

Early influences 
The Rule of Thirds 
More recent influences 

11 News and documentary 131 

Fact and fiction 

Realism and fantasy 

Film as illusion 


Record versus comment 

Operational awareness 

Realistic camerawork 

Technology as an aid to 'reahsm' 

Documentary programmes 


Engaging the attention of the audience 


12 Composition styles 142 

Visual styles 
Style and technique 
Technological development 
Staging the artistes 
Studio or location shooting 
Shot structure and editing 
StyUstic flourishes 

Multi-camera live television conventions 
The introduction of the zoom and television picture 


Portable cameras 

Customary technique 


Summary of the history of style 

13 Lighting and composition 168 

The key pictorial force 

Gradations of brightness 

Contrast range 


Characteristics of Hght 

Lighting technique 

Past influences 

Controlled lighting and composition 

Naturahsm and found light 

Television lighting 

Any two from cheap, good or fast - but not aU three 

Expressing an idea through an image 

Decorative lighting 


14 Colour 186 

How the eye sees colour 
White balance 
Colour correction 
Colour as subject 
Colour and composition 
Colour symbohsm 

15 Staging 194 

Introduction to staging 

Where shall 1 stand? 

What is staging? 

Staging people and staging action 

Figure composition 

Contents xi 

Working at speed 

16 Movement 202 

Camera movement 

Invisible movement 

The development shot 

Accentuating the effect of camera movement 


17 Shooting for editing 217 

Invisible stitching 

Selection and structure 

Basic editing conventions 

Selection and editing 

Telhng a story - fact and fiction 

News - unscripted shot structure 

Variety of shot 

Recap on basic advice for shooting for editing 


How long should a shot be held? 

Basic editing principles 

Types of edit 

Emphasis, tempo and syntax 

Multi-camera camerawork 

Dance and composition 


Endnote 247 

Bibliography 249 

Index 251 



In the last years of the nineteenth century, moving pictures were 
viewed in penny arcades on Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope. This peep- 
show allowed the solo viewer to crank a handle, peer into a darkened 
box and watch in fascination the dim flickering silent representations 
of movement. This was quickly supplanted by projected images, but 
the mystery of a miniature world continued to have a strong attrac- 
tion. After 45 years as a cameraman, I am still intrigued by a similar 
magic whenever I look through a viewfinder. There is a concentration 
of the field of view into a small intense, two-dimensional image that is 
quite unhke normal perception. 

Moving the camera, lens and viewpoint creates a continuing kalei- 
doscope of changing images. Some images are attractive and pleasing 
whilst others are dull frames, a confused slice of passing reaUty. What 
makes the difference? What is the distinction between an image on the 
screen that delights the eye and the everyday, depiction of a common- 
place 'window' on the world? 

It may be the content of the picture that fixes the attention or it may 
be the technical quality of the image that is enjoyed. Frequently, how- 
ever, it is the often unconscious pleasure derived from an arrangement 
of mass, fine, tone and colour. The composition of the image appears 
to be one aspect of film and television production that attracts the 
audience and holds their attention. 

Composition - the arrangement of all the visual elements within the 
frame - is at the heart of aU visual communication. It is a subject that 
is seldom taught to broadcasting/film trainees who are expected to 
learn by example or to fall back on intuition or instinct. Many camera- 
men, in fact, insist that composition is intuitive and assume that fram- 
ing decisions are based on personal and subjective opinion. Even a 
cursory examination of an evening's output of television will demon- 
strate the near uniformity of standard conventions in composition. 
There are original and innovative exceptions and this book aims to 
discuss the differences and the conventions of picture composition. 

There is a huge diversity of film and television production tech- 
niques, ranging from a short 30-second news piece to a 2-hour block- 
buster of a film. In general, they are aU finked by a similar technique 

xiv Preface 

but there is a big variation among different types of production in tlie 
number of people involved when framing up a shot. I have attempted 
to give examples from both ends of the production spectrum but 
camerawork is shaped by production content and inevitably there 
will be incompatibilities between working methods. 

Throughout the book I use the term 'cameraman' without wishing 
to imply that this craft is restricted to one gender. 'Cameraman' is the 
customary title to describe a job that is practised by both men and 
women and 'he', where it occurs, should be read as 'he/she'. Also, 1 
often refer to the cameraman choosing visual options when in the 
majority of situations it will be a coUaborative effort between director, 
designer, hghting, cameraman, etc. 

This second edition has been extensively rewritten to take into 
account the impact of widescreen TV and the continuing growth of 
alternative camerawork styles to the classic Hollywood conventions. 

Although there are enthusiasts in many crafts and professions, it is 
surprising, in such a competitive commercial activity as film making 
and television production, to find so many people who enjoy and are 
fascinated with the activity of picture making. 

The British writer and stage director Jonathan Miller suggested that 
the rehearsal and performance of a film or theatre drama was literally 
'play'. It is like the childhood absorption in pretence and make- 
believe. In a variety of film or television productions in studios or 
on location, large numbers of adults work together and take very 
seriously their individual task of perfecting an illusion. It is 'play' 
with a purpose. 

One such film craftsman is Robert Kruger, film editor and director 
whose film making career began in the British documentary movement 
in the 1940s and moved to other types of factual films and European 
features. This book is dedicated to Robert whose enthusiasm for the 
art and craft of film making, even after a Hfetime of working on over 
1000 films, is undimmed. 

My thanks to Robert, Alan Bermingham and Laurence Anthony for 
reading the manuscript and making many helpful and constructive 
suggestions. Needless to say, any errors or omissions in the book are 
mine. My thanks also to Margaret Denley of Focal Press and to John 
Rossetti and Mary Beresford- Williams for permission to reprint her 
photographs of television production. A special thanks to Patrick 
Caulfield for providing the drawing for the frontispiece of the book 
and to my wife. Sue, and my children, Sally and Edmund, for their 
help and encouragement in its production. 

The cover picture is from 'The Big Combo', from the film hbrary of 
Richard L. Rosenfeld, whose permission to reproduce it is gratefully 
acknowledged. It is a stiU from a film shot by the cinematographer 
John Alton, who was one of the first cameramen to write about his 


Invisible technique 

Learning the ropes 

There have been a number of boy-wonders and young prodigies in 
the history of film making but the most spectacular debut was when 
25-year-old Orson Welles was summoned to RKO in 1939 to make 
his first movie. He had no experience of film making and Miriam 
Geiger, a researcher at RKO, explained camera angles to the young 
Welles by cutting out frame holes in pieces of paper and pasting 
over a selection of shot sizes taken from a reel of film. She added 
a short text description to remind Welles of the building blocks of 
film making. 

Welles remembers that in the second week of shooting 'Citizen 

an awful moment came when I didn't understand [screen] directions. That was 
because I had learnt how to make movies by running 'Stagecoach' [dir. John 
Ford, 1939] every night for a month. Because if you look at 'Stagecoach' you 
will see that the Indians attack [the stagecoach] left to right and then they 
attack right to left and so on. In other words, there is no direction followed - 
every rule is broken in the picture, and I sat and watched it forty five times, 
and so of course when I was suddenly told in an over-shoulder shot that I had 
to look camera left instead of camera right, I said no because I was standing 
here - that argument you know. And so we closed the picture down about two 
in the afternoon and went back to my house and Toland [the film's cinemato- 
grapher] showed me how that worked, and I said 'God there is a lot of stuff 
here I don't know', and he said 'There's nothing I can't teach you in three 

('The Complete Citizen Kane', BBC TV) 

Greg Toland was right. You can understand the visual grammar of 
film making in an afternoon. You can, in the same time, also learn the 
position of every letter of the alphabet in the 'qwerty' layout of a word 
processor keyboard. Knowing where each letter of the alphabet is 
positioned wiU not make you into a writer. How words are combined 
to make meaningful sentences will take longer. Creating vivid and 

Picture Composition for Film and Television 

memorable prose equal to the greatest novelists may never be 
achieved. If WeUes was ignorant of film technique when he began 
shooting 'Citizen Kane', he must have been a prodigious high-speed 
trainee because, in the opinion of French film director Francois 
Truffaut, 'Citizen Kane' inspired more would-be directors than any 
other film. 

Many newcomers to film and TV programme making often assume 
that as content and subject diifers widely between programmes they 
must employ specific individual methods in their production. Film and 
television programmes are seen as one-off, custom-built entities. They 
may be surprised to find that there are significant links in technique, 
for example, between a 1930s musical, a 1940s crime film and a con- 
temporary televised football match. The majority of productions (but 
not all - the exceptions wiU be discussed in the next chapter), share a 
common visual grammar. Like spoken language, this set of conven- 
tions was not originated by a group of academics laying down the law. 
The visual grammar evolved over time, through practical problem 
solving on a set, at a location or in an editing booth. This body of 
visual recipes is sometimes called invisible technique or continuity 
editing, and it evolved at the very beginning of film making. 

It is important to understand the role composition plays in sustain- 
ing 'invisible technique', but it is equally important to remember that 
this is only one type of visual language. There are alternatives to this 
system, although 'invisible technique' is the predominant code used in 
nearly every type of film and television production. Its use is so wide- 
spread that many people in the industry beheve that it is the only valid 
set of conventions. They suspect that anyone using alternative tech- 
niques is either ignorant of the standard conventions or is simply 
incompetent. To some extent they are correct if the production is 
aimed at a mass audience who usually anticipate and intuitively under- 
stand certain visual forms learnt over a lifetime of watching popular 
story telling on film and television. Unfamihar codes of film making 
may confuse and 'switch-off' a mass audience. 

A moving photograph 

'Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory' is considered by many film 
historians to be the world's first moving picture. It was made by the 
Lumiere brothers and, on 22 March 1895 in Paris, it was possibly the 
first film to be projected to an audience. Nine months later, on 28 
December 1895, a paying audience watched a number of films made 
by the brothers including 'Arrival of a Train at a Station', 'Baby's 
Lunch' and 'The Sprinkler Sprinkled'. 

These 'films' were single-shot, 'actualities' or documentary views 
with the camera framing a fixed viewpoint. They were considered as 
moving photographs and were unhke later developments in film mak- 
ing in both how they were made - a single uncut shot - and in how 
they were understood by their audience. Audiences were famihar with 
slide shows, some with mechanical moving images accompanied by a 
commentary and/or music. It has been suggested that early film was 
seen by audiences as a continuation of slide presentation and other 
serial projection of images. They were like the series of pictures, the 

Invisible technique 

Figure 1.1 (a) The title slide of a 
series of Victorian coloured 
illustrations of scenes of a fire. 
Another drawing (b) depicts 
firemen rescuing the trapped 
inhabitants of the building on fire. 
As one slide followed another, 
often accompanied by an 
explanatory spoken commentary, 
different events could be shown 
out of sequence and still be 
understood by the audience. A 
shot from an early silent film (c) of 
the same subject. The shots in the 
film followed the conventions of 
the slide show and made little 
attempt to persuade the audience 
they were watching a continuous 
event in real time. The difference 
was that film provided a series of 
moving illustrations 

Rakes Progress, painted by William Hogarth in 1735. Each picture had 
individual interest but were linked by a common theme. The first 
moving pictures were discontinuous, animated photographs and in 
themselves did not form a continuous narrative. The images were 
not self-sufficient in telling a story and were possibly not conceived 
as telling a story by their producers or audience. The concept of film 
narrative and the required technique to create a convincing set of 
consecutive images had to be learnt by film makers and cinemagoers. 

In a rudimentary form, basic film technology (except the recording 
of film sound) was invented by 1896, but the idea that film's primary 
purpose was to convince and persuade an audience they were watching 
a continuous event had to be recognized. During the 1890s, multi-shot 
views were shown, sometimes compiled by the exhibitor from different 
supphers, and sometimes by the producers of film, without the concept 
that film could tell a story. 

It has been suggested that Melies, in the 1890s, recognized the 
potential of film's ability to manipulate time and space when his cam- 
era jammed whilst shooting a bus leaving a tunnel. After clearing the 
camera jam he continued filming with the camera framed on exactly 
the same view and then found, when the film was developed, that the 
bus had miraculously turned from a bus into a hearse. This may be an 
apocryphal story, but it demonstrates the potential of film technique 
that Mehes in a pioneering way was able to develop. He continued to 
shoot separate scenes containing no shot change and simply conceived 
the camera as the static eye of a privileged theatre spectator witnessing 
a series of magical illusions. 

The claim that audiences for this primitive cinema saw the presenta- 
tion differently from later cinemagoers is based on the conjecture that 
they were being shown views rather than being told a story. Film 
academic Tom Gunning proposed that cinema development split 
between story telling, which went on to dominate commercial cinema, 
and the cinema of attraction, which went underground and turned into 
avant-garde film. Primitive cinema in this sense was a series of visual 
displays providing spectator pleasure. 

Continuity cinema 

With magic lantern shows such as 'Fire', a rudimentary story was told, 
expanded by an accompanying commentary, of the start of a house on 
fire, raising the alarm at the fire station, the firemen journey to the fire, 
the fire raging in the interior, firemen with hoses and then climbing a 
ladder, followed by a rescue. Although there was a need for space 
relationships to be clear (e.g., interior fire station was distinct from 
interior burning house), there was really no need for time to foUow a 
linear path. 

There could be overlapping of time because as one slide followed 
another different events could be shown out of sequence and still be 
understood by the audience. Theatrical presentations such as Mehes 
films are a series of scenes that the audience observe from their indi- 
vidual single viewpoint. Film storytelhng gradually evolved a tech- 
nique that allowed multiple perspectives or viewpoints without 
disrupting the audience's involvement with the story. 

Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Film added a time dimension, and a major problem for film makers 
was to establish linear continuity. They discovered that action could be 
made to seem continuous from shot to shot. Instead of each shot being 
seen as a different and distinct view, similar to turning the pages of a 
photo album, film makers learnt how to join the views together into a 
seamless flow of images. 

In early film, action was played out to its end before moving to 
another piece of action. Unhke the single-shot actuality pioneering 
films, the director of 'The Great Train Robbery' (1903), Edwin S. 
Porter, cut away from action before it was concluded. Although he 
did not intercut during a scene this effectively was the invention of the 

The shot 

The shot replaced the scene to become the unit of storytelling. In the 
period from the Lumiere brothers' first pubhc projection of film to the 
outbreak of war in 1914, film making moved from a series of tableaux 
scenes echoing Victorian shde shows and theatre presentations, to a 
unique method of narrative presentation. Theatre relies on scenes, 
staging action, movement, lighting and text to make the required dra- 
matic point. Film invented the concept of multi-positioned viewpoints. 
These innovations occurred as the result of practical problem-solving 
rather than abstract theorizing. 

A photograph does not need another photograph to explain it; it is 
self-contained. A film shot is a partial explanation - a piece of a jigsaw 
puzzle. The innovation in film making was to tell a story in individual 
images (shots) that did not disrupt the audience's attention by the 
methods used to produce the pictures. It was a coherent set of visual 
conventions and techniques that aimed to be invisible to the audience. 
The first film makers had to experiment and invent the grammar of 
editing, shot-size and the variety of camera movements that are now 
standard. The ability to find ways of shooting subjects and then editing 
the shots together without distracting the audience was learnt over a 
number of years. 

The creation of 'invisible' technique 

The abihty to record an event on film was achieved in the latter part of 
the nineteenth century. During the following years, there was the 
transition from the practice of running the camera continuously to 
record an event, to the stop/start technique of separate shots where 
the camera was repositioned between each shot in order to film new 
material. The genesis of film narrative was estabhshed. 

There was a moment of discovery when someone first had the idea 
of moving the camera closer, or using a closer lens, to provide an 
image of a person in close-up. Another had the idea of putting the 
camera in a car or train and filmed the first tracking shot. As early as 
1897, a camera was placed in a gondola and provided camera move- 
ment in 'Le Grand Canal a Venice'. The panning shot was invented 

Invisible technique 

when someone moved the camera slowly across a landscape or street 

As well as camera movement came the problems involved in stop- 
ping the camera, moving to a new position and starting the camera 
again. The guiding concept that connected all these developing tech- 
niques of camera movement and shot change was the need to persuade 
the audience that they were watching continuous action in real time. 

Standard camerawork conventions 

The technique of changing shot without distracting the audience were 
discovered by a number of film pioneers. Several editing methods were 
evolved and became the standard conventions of film making and later 
television. These included continuity cutting and parallel action cut- 
ting, variation in shot size and not crossing 'the line', matching camera 
movement to action, fighting for mood, glamour and atmosphere, and 
editing for pace and variety. 

Many film practises evolved from the need to stitch together a 
number of shots filmed out of sequence. A seamless string of images 
was designed to hide the methods of film production and to convince 
the spectator that the fabrication constructed by many weeks of film 
making had a behevable reality. Camera and editing methods con- 
trived to prevent the viewer becoming conscious that they were watch- 
ing an elaborate replica. 

Early film technique had the camera firmly fastened to a tripod, 
although some camera movement was achieved by mounting the cam- 
era on a moving vehicle or craft. Panning heads gradually came into 
use after 1900 and the standard horizontal lens angle appears to have 
been 25° or 17° (see Chapter 12, 'Composition styles' for a discussion 
on lens angle and the focal length of the lens). Framing was similar to 
contemporary still photography with staging similar to a theatre pre- 

Reverse angles, point-of-view shots and position matching on cuts 
were aU discovered and became standard technique. The evolution of 
the grammar of film technique was not instantaneous or self-evident. 
Each visual technique, such as parallel tracking with the action, had to 
be invented, refined and accepted by other film makers before entering 
the repertoire of standard camera practice. 

The thread that hnked most of these innovations was the need to 
provide a variety of ways of presenting visual information coupled 
with the need for them to be unobtrusive in their transition from 
shot to shot. Expertly used, they were invisible and yet provided the 
narrative with pace, excitement and variety. These criteria are still 
valid and much of the pioneering work in the first decades of the 
last century remains intact in current camera technique. To tell a 
believable film story, the audience had to believe they were watching 
an unfolding event that was occurring 'now'. The technique that 
evolved ensured that the audience understood the action and were 
not distracted by the production methods. 

This required the mechanics of film making to be hidden from the 
audience; that is, to be invisible. Invisible technique places the empha- 
sis on the content of the shot rather than production technique in 

Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 1.2 (a) To cut from this 
shot. .. 

you need this shot (c) to show 
change of direction, otherwise 
there would be a visual jump in 
the flow of shots. 

Keeping the audience informed of 
the geography of the event is the 
mainstay of standard camera 
technique. Shots are structured to 
allow the audience to understand 
the space, time and logic of the 
action and each shot follows the 
line of action to maintain 
consistent screen direction so that 
the action is completely intelligible 

order to achieve a seamless flow of images directing the viewer's atten- 
tion to the narrative. It allows shot changes to be unobtrusive and 
emphasizes what is contained within the frame and to smoothly move 
the camera to a new viewpoint without distracting the audience. This 
is achieved by: 

• unobtrusive intercutting (see Chapter 17 on editing); 

• camera movement motivated by action or dialogue (see Chapter 
16, Movement); 

• camera movement synchronized with action; 

• continuity of performance, hghting, atmosphere and action. 

The development in storytelling in pictures required selection and 
choice of shot when recording. This included decisions on: 

• size of shot; 

• camera height; 

• choice of lens and camera distance from main subject; 

• camera angle relative to main subject. 

Where to position the camera (camera angle), when intercutting on 
a scene created the convention of the 180° system. To avoid confusing 
the audience, it was found necessary to position the camera one side of 
an imaginary line drawn between two or more subjects when intercut- 
ting between them. If this is ignored and the camera 'crosses the hne' 
when shooting a subsequent shot, it appears as if intercut faces are 
looking out of the same side of the frame and leaves the audience with 
the impression that the actors are not in conversation with each other 
(see Figure 1.3). 

The same convention is appHed to chase sequences and sports events 
where succeeding shots foUow the line of action to maintain consistent 
screen direction so that the geography of the action is completely 
intelhgible (e.g., camera positions at a football match). It is important 
that in each scene shots are structured to allow the audience to under- 
stand the space, time and logic of the action. This creates the illusion 
that distinct, separate shots (possibly recorded out of sequence and at 
different times) form part of a continuous event being witnessed by the 

Orson Welles' complaint of the lack consistent screen direction in 
'Stagecoach' is correct, but John Ford, a great film director, may have 
dehberately 'broken the rules' and crossed the line in order to inject 
confusion and tension in the Indian attack on the stagecoach 

In general, for invisible technique to succeed, careful thought must 
be given to how each shot is set up and how it will relate to the 
intended preceding and succeeding shots. Editing and shooting are 

Another convention - the 30° system, avoided distracting the audi- 
ence by cutting between following shots of the same subject with a 
camera position of less than 30° relationship to the preceding shot. 
The audience was taught a visual convention that when a character 
looks out of frame, the subject of their observation - their point of 
view - was shown in the next shot. A variation of this is the eye hne 
match when characters are in conversation. Individual shots of char- 

Invisible technique 

■ The invisible 'line' 

Figure 1.3 Crossing the line. If the 
camera is positioned at A to 
record the interviewee's 
comments and there is a need to 
capture the interviewer's 
questions or reactions, then the 
camera must be repositioned on 
the same side of an imaginary line 
drawn between the interviewee 
and the interviewer. This will 
result in two shots that will 
intercut and give the viewer the 
impression the participants are 
talking to each other (C). If the 
camera is repositioned to C, the 
shots, when intercut, will now give 
the impression that the people are 
looking in the same direction and 
that they are not making eye 
contact (D) 

acters look out of frame at the anticipated position of their hstener 
who will be seen in the subsequent shot. This convention is so well 
estabhshed that 'Vampyr' (1976), has a point-of-view shot from the 
camera position of a dead man in a coffin. It is a dead man's point-of- 

The success of invisible technique in visual storytelling is that it is 
effective in engaging the audience and discretely moving them from 
one piece of action to the next. Variation in shot size in a scene and 
variation in shot length provide story emphasis and allow changes in 
pace and dramatic tension. Intercutting between parallel action of 
different events (e.g., the hero rushing to the rescue of the heroine 
intercut with shots of the heroine) increases dramatic intensity. The 
manipulation of space and time to serve the needs of the story allow 
shot structure to be pared down to storytelling essentials. Any shot or 
action that is not subservient to the main story direction is eliminated. 
In effect, the audience has learnt to place emphasis on any visual 'clue' 
they are shown because their movie-going experience has taught them 
that its relevance would be revealed as the story unfolded. This type of 
storytelling, as opposed to alternative technique discussed in the next 
chapter, aims to leave no loose ends in the resolution of the story both 
in the way it is shot and in the structure of the plot. 

The methods of film making emerged in a remarkably short time 
compared with the history of other arts and crafts. It was and is a very 
practical craft emerging out of experiment, lucky accident or simply 
meeting the audience requirements of what was to become the most 
popular medium of mass entertainment. As each new technique was 
discovered it was quickly absorbed into the body of visual grammar 
that is still in use today, not only in dramatic/storytelhng productions, 
but also in aU forms of film and TV production. Documentary, news, 
comedy, sports broadcasting all attempt to hold their audience's atten- 
tion by the use of invisible technique. 

Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Realistic representation 

Obviously there is deception in this technique. For example, a shot of 
an actor entering a train followed by another shot of a train leaving a 
station, and then continuing with a montage of shots until the train 
reaches its destination when the actor ahghts (in close-up), will be seen 
by the audience as a truthful account of the man's journey. In reaUty, 
the actor simply entered a train in one shot, and then left the train in 
another shot without journeying anywhere. It is the very essence of 
invisible technique for a production to convince the audience by a 
series of replications of 'real hfe'. The event never happened in the 
way portrayed but the audience must be convinced that it did. 

Invisible technique is reinforced by a mistaken behef in the scientific 
accuracy of a photographic image. A nineteenth-century view of the 
history of art was that painters had struggled for many centuries in the 
quest for a convincing representation of the world but were finally 
beaten to the post by the invention of photography. The photographic 
image was thought to bring a new standard of objectivity in depicting 
a three-dimensional object in two dimensions. The fallacy of consider- 
ing the photographic image as an impartial depiction of an event is 
matched by a common assumption that painting is primarily con- 
cerned with a convincing representation of a specific field of view. 

There is a widespread belief that whereas a painter's preoccupations 
may influence his vision, the TV or film camera is a fairly straightfor- 
ward device for converting an event into a two-dimensional image. 

Mechanical reproduction 

Photography in the nineteenth century was welcomed by many people 
as a new and objective way of recording the world, unhampered by the 
subjective mediation of the individual artist. It was some time before 
people realized that the camera was as partial in the image it produces 
as a painter. Whenever a camera converts a three-dimensional subject 
into a two-dimensional picture the imprint of the lens height, camera 
tilt, distance from subject and lens angle is present in the composition 
of the shot. 

The cameraman therefore needs to understand all the elements of 
visual design if he is to convey precisely the idea or event that is 
intended to be communicated. If he or she ignores conscious composi- 
tional decisions, then 'auto composition' takes over and the camera 
provides images that are a product of the characteristics of the camera 
and lens rather than the creative choices of the manipulator of the 
camera. The camera is not a scientific instrument. It subjectively 
records an event either by design, that is the cameraman selectively 
exploits camera technique, or by default if the camera is simply 
pointed at a subject before recording. Visual imagery has its own 
version of grammar and syntax that requires the same discernment 
and application to achieve precise communication as that practised 
in the study of language. 

The camera is never objective. There are a number of conditioning 
elements that convert the original image into a two-dimensional 

Invisible technique 

image, including loss of binocular vision, a selective frame that 
excludes as well includes, a change in perspective, and so on. 

Even if these distortions could be kept to a minimum, there is still 
the problem that the image is a selected message that has to be 
decoded by the viewer. The camera stands between the viewer and 
the original subject and apart from the preconceived attitudes the 
viewer brings to the images presented to him, the cameraman also 
brings his assumptions and professional values (technique) to bear 
on the message. In art historian E.H. Gombrich's (1982) words: 

However faithful an image that serves to convey visual information may be, 
the process of selection will always reveal the maker's interpretation of what he 
considers relevant. 

{The Image and the Eye) 

Any camera - still, film or video - cannot record an image without 
leaving an imprint of the optical properties of its lens, its position in 
space and some indication of the reasons for selecting that lens posi- 
tion. Camerawork is a highly subjective activity and both the methods 
of perception (viewer and cameraman) and the 'professional' values 
that the cameraman brings to the subject will affect what is commun- 

In general one can attempt to classify camerawork into two groups. 
There are the camera positions that are chosen to record an event. 
These include not only the obvious examples of sports broadcasts and 
news events but also many feature productions rely on the script and 
performance to teU the story while the camera records the action. The 
opposite to the camera as a 'neutral' observer is when the camerawork 
attempts to 'interpret' the event. One of the best-known examples is 
Walter Ruttmann's 'Berlin, Symphony of a Great City' (1927). There 
are often more productions that mix the two approaches than concen- 
trate on one style. A sports broadcast will often throw in shots of the 
crowd's wild enthusiasm or a fan's despair to interpret the excitement 
of the event. 

Framing a shot 

Composition is an umbrella word to describe choosing which set of 
camera parameters to employ in any given situation. It need not imply 
a formal balance or academic design when framing a shot. Composing 
an image is the process of selecting which set of techniques to employ. 

Every shot has to be composed. In general, cameramen and direc- 
tors may not describe the process of framing up, staging or setting up a 
shot as shot 'composition'. The term may imply a formahty that many 
programme makers wish to avoid. Contemporary productions aim for 
a freer, looser way of presenting visual information and tend to dis- 
card the formahty of rigid balance of tone, shape and colour. And yet 
the process of choosing lens, lens height, camera angle, frame and 
positioning of subject and subject priorities are all elements that 
have been perennially used in image making. 

Visual communication in painting, film or television have often 
shared similar visual conventions. In the fifteenth century Leon 
Alberti realized that the controlhng design factor when creating a 

10 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

two-dimensional image was the distance of tlie eye from the scene and 
its height from the ground - considerations that a modern camera- 
man/director will take into account when choosing the camera dis- 
tance from the subject and camera height. In the Renaissance 
period, Piero deha Francesca wrote a book Of the Perspective of 
Painting where he detailed his ideas about the geometry of linear 
perspective. He included a recommendation that the angle of view of 
an event to be painted should be 60°. Today many film makers would 
consider that this 'wide-angled' shot would distort the appearance of 
the image but others would welcome the dynamic movement and 
images such an angle of view would create. 

The appearance of a photographic image can be manipulated by 
many different camera techniques to suit the intended visual commu- 
nication. Composition is the portmanteau word to describe these tech- 
niques. In image making, it has no formal aim other than to choose the 
most appropriate photographic style in order to effectively commun- 


Composition plays a central part in invisible technique. The intention 
within this style of production is to disguise the mechanics of produc- 
tion. To achieve this every shot must take into account: 

• if the most important element in the frame is the most dominant - 
what other visual elements distract or compete? 

• how does the size of shot and camera angle relate to the previous 
and succeeding shots? 

• what motivates camera movement? 

• does the framing keep the audience's attention to within the frame 
or are there indicators of activity beyond the frame? 

• how visually dynamic does the shot need to be - what is its story- 
teUing purpose? 

• what part does colour play in the framing? 

• what part do objects in focus and depth-of-field play in the com- 

• is the purpose of the shot clearly achieved? 

Whatever genre of film making (with exceptions to be discussed) 
some or aU of these conventions wiU be used. They are discussed in 
more detail in succeeding chapters. 

What is composition? 

Another definition of composition is arranging all the visual elements 
in the frame in a way that makes the image a satisfactory and a 
complete whole. Integration of the image is obtained by the position- 
ing of mass, colour and hght in the most pleasing arrangement. 

This definition is a start in the examination of composition but it 
does prompt further questions. What counts as 'satisfactory and com- 
plete' and is 'pleasing arrangement' an objective or subjective judge- 

Invisible technique 11 

The definition also has a half-hidden assumption that the purpose of 
pictorial composition is always to provide an agreeable visual experi- 
ence independent of the purpose of the shot. Film and TV productions 
obviously serve more purposes than simply providing a 'pleasing 
arrangement' of images. There appears to be other aspects of picture 
making to be examined before answering the question - what is good 
composition and what function does it serve? 

This book will concentrate on how to arrange a given subject for 
maximum visual effect. The subject of the shot is the predominantly 
influential element but many cameramen, in devising solutions to 
visual problems (another definition of composition) have to work 
with a subject that has already been selected. The cameraman's role 
usually centres on deciding between a choice of techniques on how best 
to handle the given material. In everyday programme production, 
there may be opportunities for the cameraman to select material 
that provides good visual potential but frequently the subject is pre- 
scribed by script or brief and the cameraman has to devise the best 
shot that can be achieved with the available material. 

Whether the composition of any photographic image has succeeded 
could be judged by a number of criteria. The chapter on perception 
(Chapter 3) looks at the way images attract and hold attention and the 
relationship between the nature of human perception and how visual 
elements can be grouped and arranged to maintain interest. 

Perspective, the influence of the frame and the visual design ele- 
ments available to the cameraman, are discussed in relation to defining 
the purpose of a shot, creating and controlling visual elements to 
facilitate the transmission of the intended message and what is needed 
to create and control the image to estabhsh atmosphere. Does the 
image convey, by its presentation, the reason why the shot was 

Light, colour, how action is staged and camera movement all influ- 
ence decisions about composition but they are never self-contained 
elements in the final image. A dynamic forceful image is not ade- 
quately analysed by identifying the constituent parts and a shot 
never exists in isolation. Answers to questions such as 'is the image 
relevant to its context?', 'what is the relationship to the previous and 
succeeding shots?', 'what are the visual style and conventions of the 
programme genre and what is the influence of current fashions and 
styles?', aU contribute to the structure of the composition. 

There are many factors at work when framing up a shot and, in 
describing the general principles that influence compositional deci- 
sions, there is a need to set the current working practices and visual 
conventions in some sort of context. There are other conventions of 
presentation that intentionally draw attention to the means of produc- 
tion. Camera movement in this alternative technique is often restlessly 
on the move, panning abruptly from subject to subject, making no 
effort to disguise the transitions and deliberately drawing attention to 
the means by which the images are brought to the viewer. This tech- 
nique may employ disruptive shot change, erratic camera movement 
and unexplained or puzzling events. Not all productions aim for clear, 
unambiguous storytelhng. This breaking down or subverting the 
Hollywood convention of an 'invisible' seamless flow of images has 
a number of different forms or styles that require a separate treatment 
(see Chapter 2). 

12 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

As there is a widespread empliasis on tlie 'Hollywood' model of 
'invisible technique' of image making in mass entertainment and the 
majority of cameramen work within this convention, it would seem 
appropriate that it should be thoroughly understood and described. 
This analysis does not necessarily endorse these conventions over any 
other method of production but simply seeks to explain the principles 
of the techniques employed. 

Composition involves a number of factors that at times interact and 
overlap. In attempting to tease out and describe constituent elements 
there is often the need to look again at basic compositional require- 
ments by way of a new visual design. Pictorial unity is achieved by 
integrating all the visual elements within a frame but in attempting to 
describe the constituent parts it has not always been possible to keep 
these topics separated in watertight chapters. 

Does the shot work? 

Within the 'invisible technique' conventions, whether the cameraman's 
objective in composing the image has been achieved could be judged 
by answers to some of the following questions: 

• Does the image (as well as the sound) attract and hold the atten- 

• Is it accessible to normal human perception? 

• What elements in the shot maintain visual interest? 

• Does the image convey by its direct content, or by its mood, the 
intended information? 

• Does it fulfil the purpose of the shot? 

• Is the image relevant to its context? 

• How does it relate to the previous and succeeding shots? 

• Does it conform to the visual style and conventions of the pro- 
gramme genre? 


Can composition be taught? Can the ability to frame and Hght eye- 
catching images be learnt or is it all based on intuition? It is the 
folklore of film and TV cameramen that composition is intuitive and 
therefore almost inexplicable. Whereas trainees and juniors on camera 
crews have access to volumes of technical explanation about exposure, 
film stock, electronic image making and aU the other technical descrip- 
tions of the tools of their trade, composition - the heart of visual 
communication - is considered a God-given talent that is either under- 
stood or not; if it is not, then the unfortunate individual who lacks 
compositional ability is seen to be similar to a tone-deaf person and 
would not know good composition if it jumped out of the viewfinder 
and hit them in the eye. 

Johannes Itten, an art teacher, gave this advice to his students: 

If you, unknowing, are able to create masterpieces in colour, then unknow- 
ledge is your way. But if you are unable to create masterpieces in colour out of 
your unknowledge, then you ought to look for knowledge. 

Invisible technique 13 

Many of us working in film and TV know, through many years of 
experience, exactly how to reposition the lens in space or choose a 
different lens-angle in order to improve the appearance of the shot. 
We are either working to inherited craft values of what is 'good' 
composition or we are repositioning and juggling with the camera 
until we intuitively feel that we have solved that particular visual 
problem. Frequently there is no time to analyse a situation and the 
only thing to fall back on is experience. Compositional experience is 
the result of many years of solving visual problems. Good visual com- 
munication is not a gift from heaven but is learnt from finding out in 
practice what does and does not work. 

The following chapters attempt to review and reveal why certain 
visual solutions to framing are considered acceptable and where and 
how these standards originated and developed. There are aspects of 
composition that are subjective and determined by individual taste but 
much of what is considered standard practice both in painting and in 
the creation of film and television images is conditioned by the innate 
requirements of human perception. 

'I see what you mean!' 

There is usually a reason why a shot is recorded on tape or film. The 
purpose may be simply to record an event or the image may play an 
important part in expressing a complex idea. Whatever the reasons 
that initiate the shot, the cameraman recording the shot should have 
an understanding of compositional technique if the idea to be 
expressed is to be clearly communicated to the intended audience. 

The appearance as well as the content of the shot is an integral part 
of the process of communication. Often, as in painting, form and 
content of screen images are inseparable. It is accepted that in a 
drama production the composition of the shot will play a major 
part in the storyteUing. The form, as well the content of the shot, is 
used to tell the story. But even in the hardest of 'hard news' stories 
where objectivity is striven for and the camera is intended to be a 
neutral observer, the effect of the image on the audience will depend 
on camera framing and camera position. Each time the record button 
is pressed, a number of crucial decisions affecting clear communication 
have been consciously or unconsciously made. 

Why composition is important 

A cameraman shows the audience where to look. His role is to solve 
visual problems usually in the shortest possible time. Although the 
cameraman's presence in factual programme making can influence 
or disrupt the subject matter, the bottom fine is to get the best possible 
rendering of what is there. 

An image should communicate in a simple, direct way and not have 
to rely on a 'voice over' to explain, reveal or argue its significance. The 
definitive shot has the relevant content with all the visual elements in 
the frame organized to achieve clear communication. The composi- 
tional design will condition how the image is perceived. There must be 

14 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

no confusion in the viewer's mind about tlie purpose for wliicli tlie 
shot was taken. 

Good composition reinforces the manner in which the mind organ- 
izes information. It emphasizes those elements such as grouping, pat- 
tern, shape and form that provide the viewer with the best method of 
'reading' the image smoothly and efficiently. If there is friction in 
visual movement of the eye across the frame, if there are areas of 
the image that stop the eye dead, then an unsatisfactory feeling is 
unconsciously experienced and, in an extreme form, will end the atten- 
tion of the viewer. There is a fine dividing line between 'teasing' the eye 
with visual ambiguities and losing the interest of the audience. 

The cameraman must help the viewer to perceive what is intended to 
be communicated by providing design guidehnes to channel the move- 
ment of the eye within the frame. The eye movement must be contin- 
uous and smooth and be led in a premeditated route across the 
relevant parts of the subject matter without any distracting detours 
to unimportant visual elements in the frame. It is part of the camera- 
man's craft to create shots that are well designed and engage the 
attention of the viewer. Simply putting a frame around a subject by 
a 'point and shoot' technique will often result in incoherent visual 
design that fails to connect. 

The image produced by a camera has no memory, knowledge or 
experience of the content. If you, as the cameraman, have additional 
details about the subject that are not contained within the frame but 
this information helps you to understand the image, the audience will 
also need that knowledge or it wiU supply its own conjectures. If this 
extra knowledge is vital to the information that is intended to be 
conveyed, the shot is incomplete and partial communication can 
only be achieved. Can the image explain all that is required without 
additional explanation? For example, in a television feature item about 
traffic congestion, a doctor was shown driving to an emergency and 
then having great difficulty in finding a place to park. In one shot, his 
efforts to repeatedly reverse into a narrow parking space were seen by 
most of the audience as simply his inability to drive. The shot failed in 
communicating its intended purpose, which was that traffic congestion 
could be a hazard in an emergency. 

To recap, control of visual communication requires: 

a clear understanding of the message to be communicated; 
an understanding of invisible technique to maximize the commun- 

an understanding of perception; 

employing the full range of visual grammar to achieve commun- 

Control of composition 

Control of composition is achieved by the abiUty to choose the appro- 
priate camera technique such as viewpoint, focal length of lens, fight- 
ing, exposure, in addition to employing a range of visual design 
elements such as balance, colour contrast, perspective of mass/line, etc. 

Invisible technique 15 

A well designed composition is one in which the visual elements 
have either been selectively included or excluded. The visual com- 
ponents of the composition must be organized to engage the viewer's 
attention. A starting point is often to follow the old advice to simplify 
by elimination, and to reduce to essentials in order to create an image 
that has strength and clarity. 

Visual design techniques 

Much of the technique employed in programme/film production is the 
result of subjective decisions made from a range of possible options in 
sympathy with the main narrative or programme requirements. 
Alongside subjective creative preferences there are also objective prin- 
ciples of design and specific ways of organizing the image to have 
predictable effects. Good visual design involves elements of individual 
creativity plus a knowledge of the role of a number of factors that 
affect the way an image is perceived. These wiU be dealt with in detail 
in the appropriate chapter and include light, figure/ground relation- 
ships, shape, frame, balance, hght/dark relationships, line, perspective 
of mass and line, colour, content. 

Cultural influences 

Some aspects of compositional technique are timeless whilst others are 
fashionably of the moment. They both have a part to play in the well- 
designed shot. The image should be designed to satisfy an aesthetic 
appreciation as well as the quest for information. This aesthetic 'buzz' 
changes with culture and fashion over time. Attention can be captured 
by the new and the novel but, when deahng with a mass audience, 
attention can just as easily be lost if current conventions and the 
expectations of the audience are flouted and the shock of the new is 
used with the mistaken idea of grabbing attention. As will be seen in 
the psychology of perception (Chapter 3), people ignore what they 
cannot understand. Communication can only be achieved if you 
have the attention of the audience. 

Changing fashions 

Styles of film and TV camerawork change but the stylistic changes are 
usually elements of narrative presentation rather than in composi- 
tional form. Barry Salt in Film Style and Technology (1983) identified 
the first use of the 'over-the-shoulder two shot' as in about 1910. The 
reverse angle shot of faces intercut in dialogue appeared in 'The 
Loafer' (a silent western) in 1912. These basic compositional tech- 
niques have become part of the language of visual storytelling. Shot 
structures are refashioned, editing conventions in the presentation of 
time and space are re-worked, conventions of narrative continuity are 
challenged and replaced but many composition conventions have 
remained (Figure 1.4). 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 



■ ' Jih 


' / / \ 

11 ^-_ — . t 

•' i 

fe>l ;^^ yRj 


W\y' ) 




W \ ll:// 

Figure 1.4 Over-the-shoulder two 

Such compositional conventions are considered normal or standard 
and have been learnt over time by cinemagoers and TV viewers. These 
compositional stereotypes can be reinforced or confronted. Human 
perception functions by seeking to simplify complex forms and pat- 
terns but this can be frustrated by the cameraman if, in his choice of 
framing, he creates disorganized images. 'But what is it?', the viewer 
inquires when presented with an unfamiliar image. The search to clas- 
sify is natural to the human mind and a perceptual 'puzzle' may 
engage the attention of an observer up to the point where he or she 
gives up the attempt to decode its significance. This point will vary 
with the individual but many people, anticipating a famiHar and recog- 
nizable image on the screen, have an aversion to the unfamiliar. If the 
shot cannot immediately be categorized, they may mentally switch off 
if their image of visual reahty is too severely challenged. 

The American cinematographer William Fraker was setting up a 
shot for 'Rosemary's Baby' (1968). The director, Roman Polanski, 
requested a specific framing through a door to show a woman tele- 
phoning in the adjacent room, but had so staged the action that the 
woman's face was masked by the door frame. Fraker wanted to repo- 
sition the camera to bring her face into view. Polanski resisted. 'With 
my framing' he explained 'we will have every member of the audience 
craning to their right in an attempt to see the face behind the door- 
frame'. The function of this shot was to withhold information in order 
to feed the curiosity of the audience in the development of the story. 


Good composition is the best arrangement of the subject matter in 
sympathy with the function of the shot. 

It should have simplicity and intensity and achieve its objective with 
clarity, precision and economy. 

Alternative technique 

Jump cuts 

Figure 2.1 'Breathless' (1959; dir. 
Jean-Luc Goddard). A continuous 
shot with the same foreground 
framing is edited so that the 
bacl<ground occasionally 'jumps' 
to a new locale 

You may have seen films or TV programmes where you become very 
conscious of the camerawork and continuity editing conventions are 
not followed. Music videos are often full of ambiguous images, rapid 
changes in location and an apparent complete disregard for the in- 
visible technique tradition. Many commercials tell a 30-second story in 
a similar way. 

Some filmmakers have consciously rejected the central philosophy 
of the invisible technique tradition and do not wish to disguise how the 
film was created. They appear to expose the mechanics of film making 
with obtrusive cutting and camera movement divorced from action. 

'Breathless' (1959), directed by Jean-Luc Goddard, has a sequence 
of an open-topped car driving through Paris. The two main characters 
in the film (played by Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg) are shot 
from behind, with Belmondo driving. The shot of Jean Seberg is edited 
without cutaways causing the view through the windscreen to abruptly 
change. There is no attempt to disguise these rapid transitions to 
different locations. The standard continuity editing technique is aban- 

Composition in this technique has obviously has a different function 
to the codes developed for invisible technique. 

What are the characteristics of this alternative technique? 

• Unsteady frame produced by the preference for hand-held camera- 

• obtrusive camera movement that is constantly on the move or 
unrelated to action; 

• a rejection of standard framing - a dehberate mispronunciation of 
standard visual conventions (e.g., faces squashed to one side of the 
frame; see Figure 2.2); 

• a tendency to draw attention to the methods of production (e.g., 
camerawork, editing, etc.) rather than the content; 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 2.2 An offset framing 
deliberately squeezing the face to 
the edge of the screen 

form becomes content; 

jump cuts and a rejection of continuity editing; 

abrupt, unexplained changes in location or time; 

the open frame technique where the audience's attention is drawn 

to what is unseen and outside the frame; 

abrupt changes between monochrome and colour shots; 

the mixture of low tech and high tech formats (e.g., use of 8 mm 

film in flashbacks by Resnais in 'Muriel' (1993)); 

dehberate degradation of the image using sub-standard formats or 

deliberately degrading the image by overexposure or marking the 


lighting that is unconnected with action to produce images that are 

unfit, obscure or ambiguous; 

slow-motion sequences unmotivated by action. 

Some of these characteristics were summarized by Andre Breton 
when he was commenting on surreafism: 

The depiction of chance and 'marvellous' juxtapositions, creating an impres- 
sion of randomness and irrationality for the viewer and thus rejection of the 
idea that art must cling to the representation of an everyday reality. 

(Hill and Gibson, 1998; 400) 


Invisible technique was developed to keep the audience involved with 
the story, for example in action films and suspense thrillers, and for the 
viewer to identify with the main characters untfi the story's resolution. 
Essentially the camerawork that evolved sought to avoid distracting 
the audience with detail or shots that did not serve these ends. These 
production methods encouraged the audience to enter a 'dream' state 
eliminating any annoying interruptions to their 'sleep' that would 
cause them to become aware that they were watching a fabrication, 
a fiction put together by a group of people. 

Many of the audience did wish to 'lose themselves in the story' and 
escape from their own lives, and ignore or suspend judgement on the 
wider political and social issues that surrounded the story. For some 
film makers, this technique and this type of story construction that 
enforced these aims robbed the audience of critical judgement. They 
sought production methods that provoked the audience to 'wake up' 
and examine what they were being told, how they were being told and 
why they were being told that particular story. 

The major influence on this alternative method of storytelling was 
Bertolt Brecht, a writer, poet and theatre director working in Germany 
during the rise of the Nazi party. He wanted the audience to think 
about the wider political context of the story they were witnessing, and 
not simply identify with the stage characters. 

It's magic 

If the aim of a magician or illusionist is to convince the observer that 
the impossible has happened he must not reveal his methods of achiev- 

Alternative technique 19 

ing the 'magic'. If he does, the iUusion will simply be seen as a 'trick' 
and wiU be without fascination or awe. His skill is his invisible tech- 
nique, which convinces the audience they are seeing everything 
whereas their attention is dehberately misdirected so that they miss the 
most important part of the action. Standard film and TV techniques 
have the same objective. The technique must be sufficiently skilful to 
hide the fabrication of reahty from the audience. 

A British comedy magician. Tommy Cooper, deliberately subverted 
this magical deceit by failing to perform the trick or by revealing the 
shallow deception that was being practised. In a sense he was perform- 
ing in a Brechtian way by making the audience aware of the illusion. 
He was making them think of the nature of 'magic'. Another comedy 
act, Morecambe and Wise, used the same technique of revealing the 
mechanics of melodrama and by looking at the camera and the viewer, 
they acknowledged their 'play' was a piece of fiction, a make believe. 
They were inviting the audience to join them in watching themselves 

In film, this alternative technique rejects the notion of a set of sleep- 
inducing 'invisible' conventions. The aim of some avant-garde film 
makers is to constantly remind the viewer that they are watching a 
fabrication, and therefore any conventions that render technique 'in- 
visible' and encourage the audience to suspend criticism are to be 
avoided. Often they wish the audience to be uncertain of the outcome 
of events described, and therefore these film makers dehberately avoid 
narrative conventions that provide structured explanations. It requires 
an audience response that is at ease with uncertainty. 

It challenges the 'reahsm' of Hollywood continuity editing and aims 
for uncertainty, ambiguity and unresolved narrative. This type of ran- 
domness and irrationality may cause an audience conditioned by the 
language of standard film making conventions to be confused and 
unresponsive. The film language is simply not one to which they are 
accustomed. In the words of film academic Jonas Mekas, 'more than 
90 per cent of people do not like films, they hke stories'. This leaves the 
remaining 10 per cent a minority audience who may enjoy a visual 
challenge and are prepared to watch types of film making other than 
standard Hollywood conventions. 

Extreme alternative technique are those productions that reject 
storytelhng and may consist of unrelated, impressionistic shots or 
even one static eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building. Andy 
Warhol, who made this particular film called 'Empire' (1965), had a 
very idiosyncratic way of making films. Paul Morrissey, another inde- 
pendent filmmaker, described him at work. 

There were about 30 people on one side of the room and the camera was on the 
other side in front of them and I said 'what kind of film are you making?'. He 
said 'I don't know. What shall we do?'. Then he said 'but you know, I don't 
like to move the camera'. I said 'really, well then the camera will be on the 
other side of the loft and there will only be little tiny people on the other end', 
and he said 'I know, I don't know what to do'. Also he said 'and I don't Hke to 
stop the camera'. Well when he said 'I don't like to move it and I don't like to 
stop it', I realized that he needed somebody to figure out what to do with the 
film and the camera. He couldn't direct, therefore he said let's not direct. All 
right, let's see. He was hoping that somehow, without doing anything, some- 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

thing would get made. Basically I was contracted as his manager with the 

distinction being that when you manage somebody usually they do something. 

('Andy Warhol' documentary, Channel 4, 3 February 2002) 

In one sense, a book about picture composition can only deal witli 
standard visual conventions. Alternative styles of production up to the 
most radical avant-garde films have no requirement for formal visual 
structures to communicate a story or idea. Composition as a technique 
for communication assumes that there will only be one reading of the 
events depicted. A suitable composition wiU be chosen to most accur- 
ately communicate that point. But communication, like perception, 
does not always provide one infallible reading. 

Realism and imagination 

Figure 2.3 The Lumiere brothers, 
'Arrival of a Train at a Station' 
(1895), contains one static shot of 
the train arriving and passengers 

Film historians often trace the two traditions of reahsm and imagina- 
tion in film technique back to the early French film pioneers, Lumiere 
and Melies. Lumiere's 1895 single shot of a train entering a station 
suggests the factual style of film making - a straightforward depiction 
that will be understood in a similar way by the whole audience. In 
effect there could have been a number of positions selected for the 
camera to film this event. The cameraman, however, selected a posi- 
tion that had the engine approaching the lens. The shot allowed the 
dynamic depiction of movement, relationship with passengers and 
people on the platform without panning because the fixed position 
of the camera on its tripod did not allow such a camera movement. 
The first pan/tilt head was not in use until 1897. The shot had a visual 
impact on its first audiences, unused to movement of a projected 
image, and alarmed and frightened some of them. It was factual, 
but had the power to move and affect the audience more than the 
event would have done in reality. 

The alternative strand of film making is to use the camera to suggest 
fantasy, imagination and subjective experience. Melies, as an ex-stage 
magician, sought to create images that caused wonder and amazement 
in his audience. 'A Trip to the Moon' (1902) was a science fiction romp 
that used camera tricks and creative imagination to entertain and 
enthral his audience. 

The film moment is always now 

A film story often has a predictable future. Characters foUow the path 
created for them in the plot and the audience's curiosity is heightened 
by plot construction and character identification. What happens next 
holds the audiences attention. 

An audience may feel the enjoyment of a film is exhausted once the 
mystery of the plot has been resolved. The hook of their attention is 
fastened on wanting to find out how the story ends. The construction 
or the aesthetics of the film form has little attraction for the majority 
of the audience. What happens to their favourite star overrides all 
other considerations. 

Alternative technique 21 

In reality, many people's lives are not as predictable as a film story, 
especially to the individual. With hindsight, an individual may be able 
to see a pattern of cause and eifect but, in the present, the future is 
neither predictable nor, to the individual, inevitable. A standard film 
story resolves problems, explains misunderstandings and eliminates 
any ambiguity of the action. Only action that is pertinent to the 
main story is included. Any inconsequential events or activities to 
the main story are usually omitted. 

Sidney Lumet's 'Twelve Angry Men' (1957), uses the standard tech- 
nique to cover twelve men attempting to reach a decision in a jury 
room. At all times the geography of the room is provided by the shot 
structure. Important plot points are made with an appropriate close- 
up. The pace and tension of the story is controlled by the performance 
and shifts in shot size. 

Contrast this with a short film located in a bar where a group of 
people seated around a table are in discussion. The camera frequently 
circles the table, panning across faces but not consistently on the 
person who is talking. Sometimes, by accident, a speaker comes into 
frame but often the speaker would be out of frame. To many viewers, 
the camerawork would be intrusive and would frustrate their natural 
curiosity to see who is talking. There is no change of tempo or inter- 
pretation of the discussion. The film ends with a speaker in mid- 

There is a distinct difference in the compositional conventions 
used in the two films because the aims of the film makers were 

Avant-garde film makers often feel that the 'Twelve Angry Men' 
treatment of reafity is misleading and incomplete. They may be moti- 
vated by political aims to reveal what they feel is the true structure of 
society or they may feel conventional story telhng ignores a large 
part of human experience. Individuals do not see their life as a 
rounded story-line limited to meaningful activity. There is a great 
deal of ambiguous and confusing activity that at the time fits no 
apparent pattern. Avant-garde productions therefore seek to reject 
the standard visual conventions and are often ambiguous and incom- 
plete, like the example of the discussion in the bar. The talk is 
rambling, unstructured and reaches no conclusion. There are no 
tidy endings and explanations, no characters to drive the story 
along, in fact there is no story. 

Without a story there is no requirement to structure the images with 
a continuity understandable to the audience. In this alternative film 
form there is no simple explanation of events, no one reading of reafity 
bundled up in a 90-minute segment that neatly explains the action 
depicted. The majority, if not all, of the visual conventions developed 
by the commercial cinema to attract, hold and entertain an audience 
can be discarded. This free form artefact can often cause confusion, 
puzzlement and even annoyance because it does not conform to the 
standard set of visual conventions audiences have been educated to 
follow. Audiences often assume that a film can only have one set of 
conventions. But not only audiences. Many film/TV programme 
makers assess the competence of a production by how well it employs 
standard visual conventions. 

22 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Why people dislike the rejection of standard 

Camerawork that appears to ignore traditional invisible technique 
may be thought of as either lacking in knowledge or abiHty or wilfully 
ignoring such technique out of a perverse desire to be 'diiferent'. The 
same criticisms have been levelled in other art and craft forms. A 
popular response when examining a Picasso painting is that the obser- 
ver's child could produce the same or a better image. The inference is 
that Picasso lacks the skill and expertise to create a 'proper' illusion of 
reality. He lacks the knowledge of Renaissance perspective and the 
mastery of eye/hand coordination that would allow him to compete 
with better works that provide a complete illusion of three-dimen- 
sional space on a two-dimensional surface. There is obviously an 
assumption by such an observer that the aim of all painting is to create 
a recognizable illusion of their concept of reality. The same unex- 
amined assumptions can operate when people are faced with forms 
of contemporary dance that do not incorporate the conventions of 
classical ballet, drama that appears to have no storyhne and music 
without melody. 

People hold similar strong assumptions about film. They beheve it 
should have recognizable characters in a dramatic situation that is 
resolved before the end. A series of images that evoke, for example, 
an ambiguity and uncertainty without character or plot is not only 
unacceptable, it often annoys or even enrages the viewer. They feel 
that it is not a 'proper' film and the maker of the film is either incom- 
petent or naive, but most often a charlatan for attempting to pass off 
bad work for the real article - a properly constructed film. 

Many cameramen believe that visual conventions of storytelling 
(e.g., linear continuity in shots, camera movement motivated by 
action, matched shots and eye fines, etc.) are ignored out of ignorance. 
They feel a practitioner employing an alternative visual language does 
not understand the conventions. They believe there is only one ac- 
ceptable set of camerawork conventions because all their experience 
in production is grounded in storytelfing either in fiction, documentary 
or news. The aim of their craft is to attract and hold the attention of 
the audience. In the words of Orson Welles, perhaps they should con- 
sider 'God, there is a lot of stuff here 1 don't know'. 

One of the paradoxes of radical or avant-garde technique is the 
speed with which it is absorbed to serve commercial ends. The 
French Impressionist painting style was dismissed as 'mere daubs' 
by contemporaries but was later recycled into chocolate box labels 
to be sold back to their hostile critics. The radical images of 
German expressionist experimental 1920s films reappeared again in 
mass market music videos in the 1980s. 


A story is a commercial imperative as most people demand what they 
are used to - a beginning, a middle and an end. Avant-garde practi- 
tioners reject this presentation of reality when it is understood as a 
linear revelation of facts. There may be plot twists and red herrings but 

Alternative technique 23 

a standard film story usually in the end has an explanation of aU that 
has been presented. 

Camerawork that is intrusive and erratic (e.g., news coverage of 
unrehearsed incidents) has a specific authenticating credibility even 
when it is replicated. For some people, music without a melody is 
difficult to enjoy, just as a series of images without a story is incom- 
prehensible. What does it mean? How are the images connected? 

One of the seminal avant-garde films was Luis Bunuel's 'Un Chien 
Andalou' (1928). It contains a sequence where an eye is shced by a 
razor. The image is alarming and frightening. It is a radical assault on 
the viewer who may require a film that teUs a story. It is a visual 
assault on the eye of the viewer's preconceptions of what a film should 

Don't wake me up 

Most viewers dislike any technique that distracts them from being fully 
immersed in the story. They require a stream of images that, without 
distraction, aUow them to follow the action and become identified with 
the participants. The camera style that achieves this is unobtrusive, 
and only presents images and action that are relevant to the story. 

Lumiere's 'Arrival of a Train at a Station' has a rudimentary story. 
The train arrives, passengers are moving on the platform. In cultures 
that are familiar with trains the information in the image can easily be 
interpreted. They may even surmise the motivation of individual peo- 
ple on the platform. Are they waiting for friends, relatives? Are they 
going on a journey, etc.? A culture without trains or people not famil- 
iar with the dress codes in the image may make completely different 
deductions. Are these people involved in some kind of religious or 
ceremonial activity? Is that large black moving shape (the train) 
benevolent or threatening? 

The relevance of an image, like perception, is dependent on what the 
observer brings to their understanding of the shot as well as its factual 
content. It is often erroneously believed by film makers that all audi- 
ences wiU understand their chosen visual storytelhng methods. 

Antonioni's film 'Chung Kuo Cina' (1972) contained a shot of a 
Chinese bridge taken from a low angle with wide-angle distortion to 
provide a dynamic and imposing image. This was considered insulting 
by the Chinese because, in their eyes, it inferred that the bridge was 
unstable and distorted. They considered it should have been shot from 
a square-on position to provide a symmetrical, imposing, stable image. 

Definition of alternative conventions 

In general, invisible technique is more consistent than alternative tech- 
nique that does not form a recognized standard visual grammar. There 
is not one alternative technique; there are many. Different elements are 
employed in individual avant-garde or art house films. They can be 
loosely summarized as the story might not be structured by logical 
cause and effect. For example, an event is depicted and then another 
event, which appears to be unconnected, follows. There might never be 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 



Figure 2.4 For an experienced 
cameraman, it would be no 
problem to pan from a tenth floor 
hospital window (a) down to the 
main entrance (c) timed to meet 
the arrival of the main characters. 
Instead, to fabricate the camera 
'surprised by events' style the 
camera starts unsteadily on its 
travel, misses the entrance (b), 
and hurriedly pans back to hold 
an unsteady frame of the 
entrance. This jittery camerawork 
is there by design 

an explanation of the connection. Yasujiro Ozu's 'Tokyo Story' 
(1953), is the story of an elderly couple gradually becoming estranged 
from their adult children. The clear linear narrative is occasionally 
interspersed with shots of washing on a hne, empty urban landscapes, 
a clump of factory chimneys. Each shot is visually attractive and there 
is the subjective impression that these depictions of an empty, hostile 
environment are part of the old people's gradual alienation from their 
family but there is no hnear connection as occurs in conventional shot 
structure. Although these locations are near where the story takes 
place, they do not directly connect with the story. Unlike standard 
visual technique, the connection is made obliquely. The existence of 
these non-essential narrative shots appears to give greater depth to our 
understanding of the characters and story. In the majority of commer- 
cial, mass market productions, this type of shot would be judged to 
slow the pace, interrupt the action, be irrelevant to the plot and elim- 
inated from the final cut. 

Avant-garde productions, or 'art house' films as they are sometimes 
termed, often suggest conflict or story lines that are left unresolved. 
This 'open-endedness' may be intended to suggest the lack of meaning 
or form to everyday living. Whereas invisible technique attempts to 
provide guidehnes of the geography of the action - the space/time 
relationships of the story, alternative technique wiU often ignore hnear 
continuity and have abrupt changes in place or time without explana- 

Many mass-entertainment films/programmes are built around char- 
ismatic artistes - the star system of promoting a new film. These 
celebrities require close attention from the cinematographer/camera- 
man to ensure they remain attractive (and commercially in demand) in 
the way they are shot and presented. Alternative productions may 
feature unattractive, difiicult, disturbed people with whom it is diflicult 
to identify. 

Some types of alternative productions appear to be seeking a dif- 
ferent technique to express those themes that are not normally com- 
mercially acceptable. Others attempt to dispense with central 
'charismatic' characters and rely on montage to provoke feehng, emo- 
tion or discussion. A third category is the attempt to subvert standard 
Hollywood visual conventions and invent visual structures that remind 
the audience they are watching an illusion - a replication of reahty. 
These avoid any disguise of technique and dehberately expose the 
mechanics of film making with jump cuts, subjective camerawork 
and constant reminders to the audience that they are watching an 
artefact. This can be too successful and a mass audience may reject 
the production. Many people found the swerving and constantly mov- 
ing camerawork in the American TV crime series 'NYPD Blue' an 
irritant and, although they may have been interested in the story, 
the form in which it was presented (see Chapter 12) was, to them, 


I want to make a distinction between 'commandment' and 'convention'. 
Photographically speaking, I understand a commandment to be a rule, 
axiom, or principle, an incontrovertible fact of photographic procedure 

Alternative technique 25 

which is unchangeable for physical and chemical reasons. On the other hand, a 
convention to me, is a usage which has become acceptable through repetition. 
It is a tradition rather than a rule. With time the convention becomes a 
commandment, through force of habit. I feel the limiting effect is both obvious 
and unfortunate. 

('How I broke the rules in "Citizen Kane" ', by Greg Toland, Popular- 
Photography, Vol. 8, June 1941) 

Greg Toland, an outstanding Hollywood cinematographer, identi- 
fies one of the fundamental problems when discussing composition of 
the moving image. What aspects of standard composition are conven- 
tions accepted by repetition - 'a tradition rather than a rule' and what 
aspects of composition are an 'incontrovertible fact' indispensable in 
visual communication? 

Like spoken language, the language of standard visual conventions 
that grew up and was developed in the first decades of film making is 
always in the process of change. Techniques once universal, such as 
perfect studio portrait lighting to glamorize the star of the film, have 
been modified to serve the fashion for a more spontaneous and reahs- 
tic look, although the concept of what is 'reahstic' tends to change 
with every decade - see Chapter 11, 'News and documentary'. 

An alternative camerawork and editing language may create a sense 
of randomness and a lack of purpose compared with standard invisible 
technique but it still has to share a common ancestry. The use of 
lenses, camera movement, shot size and cutting points cannot stray 
too far from standard practice before the images become so disjointed 
there is no communication. This objective is sometimes striven for and 
is similar to the punk movement's attempt to destroy the existent 
conventional performance of pop music. Non-communication carried 
to extreme must eventually lose the attention of aU but a tiny minority 
of its audience. 


Some filmmakers reject invisible technique tradition and do not wish 
to disguise how the film is created. They expose the mechanics of film 
making with obtrusive cutting and camera movement divorced from 

This technique and some types of story construction provoke the 
audience to 'wake up' and examine what they are being told, how they 
are being told and why they are being told that particular story. The 
aim is to constantly remind the viewer that they are watching a fab- 


The lens, the eye and 


A useful ability when framing up a shot is having the experience to 
predict how a particular subject or view will translate into a two- 
dimensional recorded image. A beginner without this skill may have 
to wander around the subject looking through the viewfinder at var- 
ious set-ups, and with various choices of lens angle and camera dis- 
tance, in order to see how these variables affect the shot. Cameramen 
and directors often have the developed visual abihty to mentally pre- 
dict the effect of mass, hne and size relationships and how they will 
impact on the shot for any specific lens angle and camera position 
chosen. Viewpoint can be decided before a camera is taken out of its 
case. This is often called having a photographic eye and in one sense it 
is learning to see hke a lens. How do we learn to see Hke a camera and 
why is it necessary? 

Composing a shot involves the translation of a three-dimensional 
subject into a two-dimensional image. The eye and the lens are both 
used in this activity but the two imaging devices differ in their inter- 

The lens of the eye focuses a two-dimensional image onto the retina 
of the eye and somehow the mind interprets the image. That 'some- 
how' is known as perception and has a significant influence on how an 
individual understands what he or she is looking at. There is always a 
subjective element in any individual's interpretation of their senses. 

The lens of a camera focuses an image onto a recording medium but 
it is not an objective scientific instrument precisely translating the field- 
of-view of the lens into an image. The conversion of the original sub- 
ject into an image viewed on a screen is conditioned by what is chosen 
from a number of variables associated with the conversion at the 
moment of recording, and its later method of two-dimensional pre- 
sentation. The variables include: 

The lens, the eye and perception 27 

the lens -/no, focal length, camera height, camera distance, etc.; 

the recording medium characteristics - film, tape and method of 


detail and resolution of lens and recording/transmission medium; 

colour rendition; 

fighting conditions; 


the image size when viewed; 

viewing conditions; 

the subjective influence of context; 

cultural influences. 

These topics are discussed in more detail in later chapters. 

The imprint of tlie lens 

When a camera converts a three-dimensional scene into a film or TV 
picture, it leaves an imprint of lens height, camera tilt, distance from 
subject and lens angle. We can detect these decisions in any image by 
examining the position of the horizon line and where it cuts similar 
sized figures. This will reveal camera height and tilt. Lens height and 
tilt will be revealed by any parallel converging fines in the image such 
as the edges of bufidings or roads. The size relationship between fore- 
ground and background objects, particularly the human figure, will 
gives clues to camera distance from objects and lens angle. Camera 
distance from subject will be revealed by the change in object size when 
moving towards or away from the lens. 

For any specific lens angle and camera position there will be a 
unique set of the above parameters. The 'perspective' of the picture 
is created by the camera distance except, of course, where false per- 
spective has been deliberately created. 

Developing a photographic eye is learning how to manipulate these 
variables to achieve a particular image. These are the basic tools of 
visual design for the cameraman and they are discussed in more detail 
in the following chapters. The choices made can create style, mood or 
emphasize a significant element of the shot. Ignoring these lens/camera 
factors in an unthinking point-and-shoot technique will still control 
the appearance of the image because the lens/camera will be left to 
produce an image customized by whatever set of default characteristics 
are engaged. 

The eye and a lens 

There are similarities and differences between how we perceive the 
world and how the camera lens translates the world into images. 
What is often overlooked when making the comparison is the influence 
of the mind on the image produced by the eye. 

Most people befieve that seeing is a straightforward activity - just 
open your eyes and see what's there. But the component parts of 
seeing such as movement, depth, shape, colour and size, etc., are con- 
structed in our heads and have to be pieced together by the brain. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Extrinsic muscle 



image input 

Visual part 


the brain - 


30 areas dealing 















Figure 3.1 The contemporary 
theory about the brain and 
perception is that the visual brain 
has two systems: 

There is part of the brain that 
generates images from the eyes 
(front projection); there is also a 
part of the brain that uses visual 
memories (back projection) 

There is no adequate explanation 
of how these two parts of the 
brain are combined in perception. 
Perception is an active process by 
the brain that invents, ignores, 
distorts what is coming through 
the eyes 

Visual information coming into our eyes is dismantled and then reas- 
sembled. Different aspects of seeing are dealt with by sub-sections of 
the brain; each area decoding one aspect of visual information. There 
is parallel processing by over 30 areas of the brain such as motion, 
colour, depth, etc. It is the brain that turns seeing into understanding. 
Like a film or TV frame, our eyes only capture static images: they are 
transmitted to the back of the brain where they are incorporated into 
seeing movement. 

There are a number of facets of the brain's involvement in seeing 
that need to be taken into account when framing up a shot that may 
only be on the screen for a few seconds. 

Size constancy 

A shot, if taken with an appropriate lens angle, camera distance and 
viewed with a specified screen size and viewing distance (see next 
chapter), will replicate the retinal image, but this image will not neces- 
sarily be the same as how an observer views the same field of view. 

With the above conditions, the camera will provide true geometrical 
perspective, but because we do not see the world as it is projected on 
the retina, the perspective of the shot may look wrong. For example, a 
holidaymaker takes a photograph of an impressive range of moun- 
tains. Looking at the print, the hohdaymaker may be disappointed 
because the mountains look very small compared with their memory 
of the landscape (see Figure 3.2). 

The mismatch between how we think we see a subject and how the 
camera records the same subject is due to a perceptual distortion called 
size constancy. This is the tendency for the perceptual system to com- 
pensate for changes in the retinal image with viewing distance. As a 
retinal image, a person walking away from a static observer halves in 
size as their distance from the observer doubles. The relationship 
between image size and distance from the observer is a constant, but 
in normal perception it is not seen as a constant. Perception adjusts the 
perceived size to match our knowledge of the size of the receding 

The lens, the eye and perception 


Figure 3.2 The mismatch between 
how we think we see a subject (a) 
and how the camera records the 
same subject (b) is due to a 
perceptual distortion called size 
constancy. This is the tendency for 
the perceptual system to 
compensate for changes in the 
retinal image with viewing 

We habitually underestimate the change in size of a person walking 
towards or away from us and mentally picture them modified in size 
but only with a slight alteration to their 'normal' size. An audience will 
appear from the front to have similar size faces and yet, to an observer, 
the retinal image of the faces of the people in the back rows will 
probably be a tenth of the size of the faces of the people in the front 
row. We never recognize that the image of our face in the mirror is 
always much smaller than its actual size. These are all depth indicators 
we habitually ignore or make the necessary adjustinent for, as in the 
phenomenon of the 'upside down' image that is focused on the retina 
of the eye. We 'mentally' correct this inversion of our field of view as 
we subconsciously 'correct' the change in size. Size constancy is what 
the brain does and the camera does not do and therefore when plan- 
ning a shot we should not be misled by this habitual distortion. 

A simple experiment demonstrating this phenomena is described by 
R.L. Gregory in Eye and Brain (1967): 

Look at your two hands, one placed at arm's length the other at half the 
distance - they will look almost exactly the same size, and yet the image of 
the further hand will be only half the (linear) size of the nearer. If the nearer 
hand is brought to overlap the further, then they will look quite different in 

To 'see' like a camera obviously requires overcoming this everyday 
mental adjustment in the perceptual process. Many artists have trained 
themselves to accurately draw their perceptual image whereas most of 
us are trapped, particularly when taking photographs, in the percep- 
tual misconception of size constancy. In essence we see what we think 
is there, not what is actually there. 

This characteristic of perception in habitually making adjustments 
to the size of a subjects at various distances from the viewer provoked 
a heated debate in the mid-nineteenth century when artists began 
basing painting on photographs. Always assuming that a lens/camera 
distance provided 'normal' perspective in a photograph (see Chapter 4, 
'The lens and perspective'), there was fierce criticism on what many 
people thought was the gross distortion in the painting depiction of 
size relationships. People were for the first time confronted with their 
adjustment of optical size as presented on the retina and the optical 
truth of a photograph transcribed into a painting (e.g., the holiday- 
maker disappointed with his photograph of a diminutive mountain 

In 1858, Mrs Jane Carlyle complained about a Robert Tait painting 
of herself and husband in their drawing room, claiming that it was bad 
enough to be recorded for posterity with a frightful table cover, but 
what was worse was that their dog Nero, in the lower right fore- 
ground, was as big as a sheep. What was called the 'false and ugly 
perspective of a "photographic" painting' was in fact the true optical 
perspective showing size relationships as they were, not how we ima- 
gined they were. 

Manipulating size relationships and the perspective depth of the 
shot is one of the principal compositional devices in film and TV 
productions. Seeing as a camera does requires not only retraining 
our habitual way of discounting the actual size of objects in a field 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 3.3 Perception is making 
sense of an image - searching for 
the best interpretation of the 
available data. The mind sees 
patterns and searches for the best 
interpretation. A perceived object 
is therefore a hypothesis to be 
tested instantaneously against 
previous experience. If it looks like 
a duck then it is a duck. That is, 
until we see it as a rabbit 

of view, but also mentally conceiving the visual eifect of choosing 
different lens angles and camera distances. 

How do we understand what we are looking at? 

In setting up shots for film and TV it is important to remember that 
perception is not a simple common sense everyday activity that can be 
ignored. Understanding how the audience makes sense of the images 
presented to them, often in rapid succession, will ensure the required 
visual communication is effective. Unfortunately there are many com- 
peting theories about human perception. 

The 'perspectivist' theory proposes that our understanding of a 
visual field is simply determined by the laws of geometric optics. 
There is no need to invoke mental processes. The retinal image, if it 
obeys the laws of hnear perspective, correctly depicts the field of view. 
With this theory, a camera is an accurate substitute for an observer. 
The weakness with this theory, as has been demonstrated in discussing 
size constancy, is that there is often a mismatch between what we think 
we see and what the camera 'sees'. 

The Gestaltist theory suggests that mental operations play a much 
larger role in perception. There are a number of visual concepts the 
mind employs in the act of perception, which is much more complex 
than the simple mechanical process suggested by the perspectivist the- 
ory. A third theory, the constructivist, suggests that perception is an 
active process by the observer, who is constantly making assumptions 
and testing out visual phenomena until he is satisfied he has made the 
correct interpretation. These are not compatible ideas but there are 
elements of each that can be combined to suggest guidehnes when 
attempting to compose a shot. 

fi ft 




Figure 3.4 Searching for coherent 
shapes in a complex image, 
human perception will look for 
and, if necessary, create simple 
shapes. Straight lines will be 
continued by visual projection 
(cube shape from 'Organisational 
determinants of subjective 
contours', Bradley and Perry, 

Characteristics of perception 

Most theorists agree that perception is instantaneous and not subject 
to extended judgement. It is an active exploration rather than a passive 
recording of the visual elements in the field of view and is selective and 

The mind makes sense of visual elements by grouping elements into 
patterns. Any stimulus pattern tends to be seen in such a way that the 
resulting structure is as simple as the given conditions. Making sense 
of visual stimuH involves testing by hypothesis. An unfamihar or 
ambiguous image may be assigned a tentative definition until further 
information becomes available (Figure 3.3). 

An American law lecturer once tested the accuracy of his students' 
ability to witness an event by staging a fake crime in his lecture hall. A 
man ran into the hall disrupting his lecture and brandished a weapon 
of some kind and then left. The law teacher immediately asked his 
students to accurately describe what they had seen. Needless to say 
every student 'witness' had a different version and a different descrip- 
tion of the bogus criminal. The simple point was made that most 
people are selective in their viewpoint. They see what they expect to 
see or what they can understand. 

The lens, the eye and perception 


What a person perceives is dependent on personal factors as well as 
the visual elements in their field of view. Their understanding of an 
image reflects past experiences as well as their present state of mind. 
Although it is probable that no two observers may observe a given 
scene in the same way and may disagree considerably as to its nature 
and contents, much of our perceptual experience shares common char- 

\o / 

\ / 

\ / 

\ / 

\ / 

\ / 




Figure 3.5 (a) (b) Sometimes you 
cannot see the tree for the wood. 
A shift in camera position may 
establish figure/ground priorities 
and allow the dominant subject to 
be emphasized 

How the mind responds to visual information 

Much of the theory of perceptual characteristics has been influenced 
by Gestalt psychologists. Gestalt is the German word for 'form' and 
these psychologists held the view that it is the overall form of an image 
that we respond to, not the isolated visual elements it contains. In 
general, we do not attempt to perceive accurately every detail of the 
shapes and objects perceived but select only as much as will enable us 
to identify what we see. This may depend on the probability of appear- 
ance of a particular type of object but the precision of our perception 
is sufficient only for our immediate need. 

We may increase our visual concentration if we feel it is warranted 
but this enhanced visual attention may be of short duration. The 
tendency is for the perceptual system to group things into simple units. 

The minimum amount of time needed to recognize an object (pos- 
sibly 1/100 second) will depend on the famiharity and expectation of 
that specific image. An observer can perceive a large and complex 
picture that is seen everyday and is anticipated in a time that would 
be quite inadequate for the perception and understanding of a com- 
plex meaningless shape. 

In searching for the best interpretation of the available visual data 
we utilize a number of perceptual 'shorthand' techniques that include 
organization of similar shapes and similar sizes. Shapes that are simi- 
lar are grouped and form a pattern that creates eye motion. A 'good' 
form, one that is striking and easy to perceive, is simple, regular, 
symmetrical and may have continuity in time. A 'bad' form, without 
these quahties, is modified by the perceiver to conform to 'good' form 

Perceptual steps 

Perception is extraordinarily fast. This can be demonstrated by the 
deductions and judgements made when driving a car or, as a pedes- 
trian, the perceptual calculations made when crossing a busy city 
street. Each element of the perceptual steps may operate instanta- 
neously or occur in an order conditioned by the visual situation. 

First, there is the need to separate figure from ground. Figure 
describes the shape that is immediately observable whilst ground 
defines that shape by giving it a context. A chess piece is a figure 
with the chess board as its ground. Identifying the shape of the figure 
- that it is a pawn - may provide complete recognition. Other subject 
recognition may involve colour, brightness, texture, movement or 
spatial position. Instantaneous classification and identification occur 
continuously but the perceptual process can be helped or hindered by 
the presentation of the subject (Figure 3.5(a) and (b)). 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 3.6 A simple shape such as 
a cube Is easily seen in isolation 
but is camouflaged when 
swallowed up in a more complex 
figure. The centre of interest of a 
composition requires visual 
emphasis (Gollschadt diagram) 

If the image is familiar, recognition may be instantaneous and there- 
fore there is a redundancy of information. If the image is unrecognized 
then there may be a rapid search and match through memory to find 
similarities in mental images. When an unexpected image cannot be 
identified then either a guess is made or it is ignored. 

People habitually overlook things they cannot understand. For 
example, a foreign news story in a TV news bulletin in which the 
poHtical context or geographic situation is unknown to the viewer, 
ceases to be information and is ignored unless a connection can be 
established with an existing frame of reference. The reporter, who may 
have lived with the story for days, weeks or even months, may have an 
abundance of background knowledge to the specific two-minute item 
he files that day. This may cause him to overestimate the background 
information the viewer brings to the story. A similar extended pre- 
paration and filming of a narrative sequence may involve the produc- 
tion group investigating and discussing every nuance and significance 
of a 10-second shot. The first-time viewer of the shot has to extract all 
this days/weeks of considered dehberations during the lO-second run- 
ning time of the shot. If a shot is viewed many times in editing, its 
visual impact can appear limited and easily understood. It is often 
tempting to shorten its screen time in order to inject pace and visual 
vitality into a sequence that has grown stale with repeated viewing in 
the edit suite. The audience, however, usually only see the shot once 
amidst a montage of other shots. 

We predict what is likely to happen next from our experience of the 
past and rely on these assumptions to forecast the future. Shot struc- 
ture and shot composition have to take into account this habit of 
searching for the cause of an effect. 

Problems with perception 

There is a basic distinction between 'reading' the space in a two-dimen- 
sional image, where a hypothesis of shape, depth, etc., has to be esti- 
mated by viewing from a fixed position; compared with the potential, 
in a three-dimensional situation, to move within the space to confirm a 
hypothesis. We cannot walk around a picture. 

Our perceptual knowledge is gained from our experience of moving 
in a three-dimensional world. An essential element of testing and 
checking perceptual information is by moving through space. We 
use these acquired three-dimensional perceptual skills and frequently 
apply them to a very reduced image depicted in two-dimensions (e.g., a 
television screen) where we have no opportunity of testing out our 
depth 'guesses' by moving into the picture space. 

Although the image created by a video or film camera may be 
similar to the image focused on the retina of the eye, there is the crucial 
difference of being unable to test out the depth indicators of a two- 
dimensional image by moving into its picture space. A moving camera 
can reproduce some of the image changes that occur when we move in 
space but not the visual depth checks achieved by binocular vision and 
head movement. 

There is a considerable amount of visual information that is used in 
perception that is usually unacknowledged until an attempt is made to 
reproduce three-dimensions on a two-dimensional plane. If an 
untrained person attempts to draw a townscape they will soon realize 

The lens, the eye and perception 33 

that there are many aspects of visual representation of which they may 
never have been consciously aware. Although information about per- 
spective of hne and mass and vanishing points are present in the eye 
they are unexamined, even though they help us to determine distance. 

As we move our viewpoint in space, so the appearance of objects 
alters. A plate may have the shape of a circle seen from above but 
viewed from any other angle its shape is never circular, but we persist 
with a mental image of a plate as a circle. We know that objects have 
an identity and a permanent form and ignore perceptual problems 
with the continuity of form produced by a changing viewpoint. 

The two-dimensional representations of film and video provide 
image dimensions or size relationships of which we may not be 
aware. Sometimes the appearance of everyday objects are altered 
when lit from an unfamiliar angle or seen in extreme close-up. A 
low-angle, close shot of a golf baU against the sky in 'Murder by 
Contract' (1960), accompanied by the murmur of out-of-frame golfers, 
estabhshed an expectation of the normal object size, until the camera 
pulled back and disclosed that the normal two-inch golf ball was in 
fact a four-foot-high structure identifying the entrance to a golf 

An unfamiliar setting or the absence of a field of reference to an 
object frequently creates difficulties in identifying what normally is 
instantly recognized. 'It looks hke an "x" but I must look at it longer 
to make quite sure' can be caused by unexpected lighting or shot size. 
The meaning of a famihar image can be understood without conscious 
thought whereas intelligent interest is required to understand unfami- 
har subjects. Recognition of images may be easily accomphshed if the 
observer is favourably disposed towards them. That which tends to 
arouse the observer's hostihty or antipathy may be either forgotten or 

A tight shot of a woman feeding her baby with the woman's face 
looking down to the baby at her breast wiU engender, in most people, a 
feeling of warmth and human empathy. It is universal and timeless and 
will, in general, produce a feehng of uncritical endorsement. The same 
activity, if framed in a wider shot now showing mother and child in an 
exterior that includes shabby and broken coaches and caravans, dirty 
and half clothed children and a few mangy dogs roaming around a 
wood fire, will set up a completely different set of responses. Putting 
the original subject in a social context wiU provoke the viewer into 
bringing preconceived attitudes and social judgements to bear on the 
activity. It may even provoke anger that a woman should bring a child 
into the world in such an inhospitable and ahen (to the viewer's frame 
of reference) world. What is included and excluded from the frame 
alters the way the central subject is understood. 

Attention and perception 

Perception is dependent on attention. If attention is concentrated on a 
small part of the field of view, little will be perceived of the rest of the 
scene. If attention is spread over a large area, no one part will be very 
clearly and accurately perceived. The total amount that can be 
attended to at any one moment is constant. 

There is selective perception in everyday hfe, with people unable to 
attend to two different visual events; they either combine the two or 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 


I ' I ' I 


Figure 3.7 Our attention is almost 
immediately captured by the 'one' 
that is different. The repetition of 
the brick shape provides an 
overall image unity whilst at the 
same time emphasizing the one 

their attention ends. It is not possible to continually attend to even one 
part of an image. After a short period, attention wanders, but by 
directing perception understanding improves. 

Attention can be split three ways even when watching a familiar TV 
event such as a weather forecast. The physical appearance of the fore- 
caster, as well as their spoken commentary, will split the attention and 
to this is added a third part of the image that requires attention - the 
changing graphics of the weather chart. It is difficult to attend to all 
three elements even in this simple display without loss of attention to 
one part of the information presented. 

Change blindness 

Two psychologists at Harvard University devised an experiment to 
measure how attentive people are in an everyday situation. They 
were attempting to demonstrate how httle we see of what comes 
through our eyes. 

They set up a reception counter staffed by a young man to hand out 
forms. Individuals who were the subjects of the experiment 
approached the counter in turn. They were unaware at this stage 
that they were part of an experiment. When they handed the form 
back, the young man ducked down to get more information for 
them. While he was briefly out of their sight he was immediately 
replaced below the counter by another young man of different appear- 
ance including a different coloured shirt. The duplicate young man 
stood up and presented the material and gave directions to a room. 

More than 75 per cent of the subjects, when debriefed, did not 
notice that the young man had changed between them receiving 
their first and second form. The 25 per cent who did notice may 
have been concentrating on a specific part of the young man and 
therefore noticed his appearance had changed when he re-emerged 
from behind the counter. Because our attention system aUows us to 
actively select what to look at, we often miss large changes to our 
visual world that appear to be perfectly obvious to someone who 
knows what is going to change. 

The brain fills in the gaps 

The eyes are the slaves of our attention system. In film making this can 
be exploited and directed by subject emphasis in a shot, for example, a 
shadow behind a door or a face specially lit in a group of faces. 

Viewing a horror film demonstrates the power of the viewer's ima- 
gination. It is not what is on the screen but what we think we see on 
the screen (e.g., the shadow behind the door). The less we see the more 
we imagine. There is nothing more vivid than the pictures we generate 
in our head. 

Research suggests that our brains are constantly distorting what we 
see. We guess what is out there from past experience rather than hav- 
ing to build up images instantaneously. The brain fiUs in a vast amount 
of additional information. The brain just doesn't see - it invents much 
of it. Perception is a highly personal inner world. 

Neuro scientists suggest that although the world appears to be 
visually high resolution and photographically sharp, a lot of this 
is filled in from memory. In recent years perceptual research has 

The lens, the eye and perception 35 

suggested the visual brain relies as much on information from our 
memory as from our eyes. We are using information from the past 
to imagine what is out there. 

Vision is not a one-way transfer of information from eye to brain. 
There is also an exchange between the 30 known areas of the visual 
brain and the use of stored visual information. Our perception of the 
world is as much what we expect to see as it is about what we actually 
see. When composing images this aspect of perception can be 


There is a mismatch between how we think we see a subject and how 
the camera records the same subject due to a perceptual distortion 
called size constancy. 

The mind tends to group objects together into one single com- 
prehensive image. The mind sees patterns and composition can 
enhance or faciUtate this tendency or it can prevent it. A knowledge 
of how the mind groups visual elements is a valuable tool for good 

Test the strength of a composition by examining the individual 
visual elements it contains and check if they separately or collectively 
strengthen or weaken the overall form. 

Although all these perceptual habits may seem obvious and 
unremarkable they often play a significant part in shot composi- 
tion and cannot be overlooked when seeking to maximize visual 


The lens and perspective 

Perception and depth 

The eye/brain judges depth by binocular cues (available to two eyes) 
and monocular cues (available to one eye). Because the eyes are about 
6 cm apart the retinas of the eyes receive slightly different images. It is 
the comparison of these two images and by movement of the head that 
information about depth is achieved with binocular vision. The short 
fashion for three-dimensional films in the 1950s replicated stereoscopic 
vision by having two overlapping images forming the projected image 
that were separated when viewed by green and red spectacles. Apart 
from this fashion, a television or film shot is a 'one-eyed' system and 
indications of depth are achieved by: 

relative size of known objects or same size objects; 
linear perspective - parallel lines converge in the distance (e.g., 
looking along railway lines); 

overlap - any subject that obscures another subject is perceived as 
being closer to the lens; 

relative brightness - subjects that are clearer and brighter are per- 
ceived as being closer to the lens than subjects at a distance; 
motion parallax - as the camera's viewpoint changes, more distant 
objects will move more slowly than objects close to the lens; 
texture gradient - regular size objects (e.g., blades of grass, fabric 
weave) will diminish in size as they recede from the lens; 
height in the frame - a subject that is higher in the frame (and 
smaller) than a similar foreground subject is perceived as being 
further away. 

Depth indicators and their relationship to the lens 

The mathematical laws by which objects appear to diminish in size as 
they recede from us, the way parallel lines appear to converge and 

The lens and perspective 


Figure 4.1 A detail from The 
Profanation of the Host (1465), a 
painting by the Florentine artist 
Paolo Uccello where he explores 
the newly discovered linear 
perspective indicators to represent 
depth on a two-dimensional 

The artist David Hockney 
suggests that some paintings of 
the fifteenth century and later 
were created with the aid of 
mirrors or lenses. If his theory is 
correct, artists who worked on a 
projected image may have faced 
similar lens problems to those 
contemporary cameramen are 
involved with 

vanish at the horizon, were introduced to Western art in the fifteenth 

The Profanation of the Host (Figure 4.1), is a detail of a painting by 
the Florentine artist Paolo Uccello. As you can see, he has used all the 
newly discovered linear perspective indicators to represent depth on a 
two-dimensional surface. They include converging parallel lines such 
as the timbers in the ceiling, the tiles on the floor and the walls, and a 
reduction in the size of the tiles as they recede. 

So what are the laws of perspective that need to be understood? 
Unlike the Renaissance artist, the cameraman does not have to puzzle 
over how to represent a two-dimensional plan of a three-dimensional 
view before he produces a realistic picture. He does not have to analyse 
how the eye perceives depth. He simply presses the record button and 
the camera does the rest. Or does it? 

The cameraman has to decide at what distance and with what lens 
angle he will shoot the scene. That will make a difference to the size 
relationships within the frame - he will control the perspective of mass. 

He has to decide the lens height. Shooting low with a level camera 
will produce one type of line perspective. Shooting from a high van- 
tage point tilted down will produce another set of fine relationships in 
the frame. 

The camera doesn't he - much. It simply reproduces an image con- 
ditioned by one of the four parameters mentioned above - lens height, 
camera tilt, distance from subject and lens angle. 

In identifying how the two-dimensional depiction of space is cre- 
ated, there are a number of lens characteristics that play an important 
part. In order to control and manipulate these variables in the visual 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Focal point 

Focal length 

Focal length of a single lens 

equivalent lens 

^7 — 1 

— — ^ 

" / 


Focal length 

Focal length of a compound lens 

Figure 4.2 (a) single element lens; 
(b) multi-element lens 

design of a composition, it is necessary to understand how the lens 
creates depth indicators. 

Focal length 

When parallel rays of hght pass through a convex lens, they will con- 
verge to one point on the optical axis (see Figure 4.2). This point is 
called the focal point of the lens. The focal length of the lens is indi- 
cated by the distance from the centre of the lens or the principal point 
of a compound lens (e.g., a zoom lens) to the focal point. The longer 
the focal length of a lens, the smaller its angle of view will be; and the 
shorter the focal length of a lens, the wider its angle of view. 

Focal length (lens angle) and the distance of the camera from the 
subject(s) of a shot play a crucial part in the two-dimensional depic- 
tion of space. 

Angle of view 

The focal length of a prime lens has a specified angle of view. A zoom 
lens has a variable focal length and therefore a variable angle of view. 
The approximate horizontal angle of view of a fixed focal length lens 
can be calculated by using its focal length and the size of the recording 
format frame of the camera. Because the horizontal angle of view of 
the lens is proportional to the width of the recording format (e.g., 
35 mm film, 2/3" CCD video, etc.), lenses with the same focal length 
will produce different angles of view depending on the format in use 
(see Chapter 12, 'Composition styles'). 

For example, a video camera fitted with 2/3" CCDs the formula 
would be: 

Angle of view — 

2 tan -1.8 mm (width of CCD) 
2 X focal length (mm) 


Figure 4.3 Depth-of-field: the three 
variables that affect depth-of-field 
are camera distance, frio and lens 

The depth-of-field, how much of the scene in shot is in acceptable 
focus, is another important element in shot composition and in con- 
trolling how the viewer responds to the image. Cinemagraphic fashion 
has alternated between deep focus shots (Greg Toland's work on 
'Citizen Kane' (1941)), to the use of long focal lenses with a very 
limited depth-of-field only allowing the principal subject in the 
frame to be sharp. Changing the /no alters the depth-of-field - the 
portion of the field of view that appears sharply in focus. 

This zone extends in front and behind the subject in focus and will 
increase as the /no increases. The greater the distance of the subject in 
focus from the camera, the greater the depth-of-field. The depth-of- 
field is greater behind the subject in focus than in front and is depen- 
dent on the focal length of the lens and /no. For a correctly exposed 
picture, the depth-of-field can be adjusted by altering hght levels or by 
the use of neutral density filters that will then require an adjustment to 
the aperture (/no) to return to a correct exposure. 

The lens and perspective 39 


The /no of a lens is a method of indicating how much hght can pass 
through the lens. It is inversely proportional to the focal length of the 
lens and directly proportional to the diameter of the effective aperture 
of the lens. For a given focal length, the larger the aperture of the lens 
the smaller its /no and the brighter the image it produces. /nos are 
arranged in a scale where each increment is multiplied by \fl (1.414). 
Each time the /no is increased by one stop (e.g.,/2.8 to/4), the expo- 
sure is decreased by half 

/1.4 /2 /2.8 /4 /5.6 /8 /ll /16 /22 


The majority of video cameras are fitted with a zoom lens that can 
alter its focal length and therefore the angle of view over a certain 
range. This is achieved by moving one part of the lens system (the 
variator) to change the size of the image, and by automatically gearing 
another part of the lens system (the compensator) to simultaneously 
move and maintain focus. This alters the image size and therefore the 
effective focal length of the lens. To zoom into a subject, the lens must 
first be fully zoomed in on the subject and focused. Then zoom out to 
the wider angle. The zoom will now stay in focus for the whole range 
of its travel. 

Readjustment on shot 

In live television productions, the zoom lens angle is often altered to 
trim or adjust the shot to improve the composition when the content 
of the shot changes. Someone joining a person 'in shot' is provided 
with space in the frame by zooming out. The reverse may happen when 
they leave shot - the camera zooms in to recompose the original shot. 
Trimming the shot 'in vision' may be unavoidable in the coverage of 
spontaneous or unknown content but it quickly becomes an irritant if 
repeatedly used. Fidgeting with the framing by altering the zoom angle 
should be avoided during a take. 

Zoom ratio 

A zoom lens can vary its focal length. The ratio of the longest focal 
length it can achieve (the telephoto end) with the shortest focal length 
obtainable (its wide-angle end) is its zoom ratio. A broadcast zoom 
lens will state zoom ratio and the wide-angle focal length in one figure. 
A popular zoom ratio is a 14 x 8.5. This describes a zoom with a 14:1 
ratio starting at 8.5 mm focal length (angle of view = 54° 44') with the 
longest focal length of 14 x 8.5 mm — 1 19 mm (angle of view — 4° 14'). 


A zoom lens can be fitted with an internal extender lens system that 
allows the zoom to be used on a different set of focal lengths. A 2x 
extender on the 14 x 8.5 zoom mentioned above would transform the 

40 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

range from 8.5 mm-119 mm to 17 mm-238 mm but it will lose 
approximately two stops of sensitivity. 


Focusing is the act of adjusting the lens elements to achieve a sharp 
image at the focal plane. Objects either side of this focus zone may still 
look reasonably sharp depending on their distance from the lens, the 
lens aperture and lens angle. The area covering the objects that are in 
acceptable focus is called the depth-of-field. 

The depth-of-field can be considerable if the widest angle of the 
zoom is selected and, whilst working with a small aperture, a subject 
is selected for focus at some distance from the lens. When zooming 
into this subject, the depth-of-field or zone of acceptable sharpness will 

Follow focus 

Film and television often have a high proportion of shots of faces and 
the eyes need to be in sharp focus. Focus on a video camera is deter- 
mined and adjusted with reference to the viewfinder picture. Sharpest 
focus can be checked 'off-shot' by rocking the focus zone behind and 
then in front of the eyes. As camera or subject moves there will be a 
loss of focus that needs to be corrected. The art of focusing is to know 
which way to focus and not to overshoot. The peaking control (if 
fitted) on the viewfinder emphasizes the electronic edges and is an 
aid to focusing and does not affect the recorded image. In setting a 
film shot, the principal subject distance is measured and any change of 
focus is caHbrated and marked. 

Zoom lens and focus 

A zoom lens is designed to keep the same focal plane throughout the 
whole of its range (provided the back focus has been correctly 
adjusted). Pre-focus whenever possible on the tightest shot of the 
subject. This is the best way of checking focus because of the small 
depth-of-field and it also prepares for a zoom-in if required. 

Pulling focus 

Within a composition, visual attention is directed to the subject in 
sharpest focus. Attention can be transferred to another part of the 
frame by throwing focus onto that subject. Match the speed of the 
focus pull to the motivating action. 

If the focus is on a foreground person facing camera with a defo- 
cused background figure and the foreground subject turns away from 
camera, focus can be instantly thrown back to the background. A 
slower focus puU would be more appropriate in music coverage, for 
example, moving off the hands of a foreground musician to a back- 
ground instrumentalist. 

The lens and perspective 


Differential focus 

Differential focus is deliberately using a narrow depth-of-field to 
emphasize the principle subject in the frame in sharp focus that is 
contrasted with a heavily out-of- focus background. 

The structural skeleton of a shot 







Figure 4.4 Diagonal arrangements 
of lines in a composition produce 
a greater impression of vitality 
than either vertical or horizontal 
lines. The square-on shot of a 
house (a) is visually static because 
it maximizes the number of 
horizontal lines in the frame. 
Angling the camera position to 
show two sides of a building (b) 
converts the horizontal lines into 
diagonals. A line at an angle is 
perceptually seen as a line that is 
in motion. Compositions with a 
strong diagonal element imply 
movement or vitality (see Chapter 
5, 'Visual design'). 

Although the subject of the shot 
remains the same - a house - the 
structural skeleton of the shot has 
been rearranged to increase the 
viewer's perceptual attention 
independent of their interest in the 
specific content of the shot 

Although a television or film image is viewed as a two-dimensional 
picture, most shots will contain depth indicators that allows the audi- 
ence to understand the two-dimensional representation of space that 
contains the action. Text on a blank background has no depth indi- 
cators but the text is still perceptually seen as 'in front' of the page. 

The audience will be looking at the surface of the screen, a two- 
dimensional plane covered by a series of hues, shapes, brightness 
points, contrasts, colour, etc., and will respond to any indication of 
recognizable form and space contained in the shot. They will read into 
the two-dimensional image an impression of a three-dimensional 

There are therefore two aspects of the composition. The content - a 
house, horse or face - and the front surface arrangements of hues, 
shapes, contrasts, etc., that form the recognizable images. The major- 
ity of the audience may only remember the content of the shot - the 
house, horse or face - but they will also be affected by the series of 
fines, shapes, brightness points and contrasts, colour, etc., which con- 
struct the front surface plane of the image. This 'abstract' element of 
the shot may be crucial to the way the viewer responds to the image. 

Each visual element in a shot can therefore serve two functions: 

1. as content - that part of the composition that provides depth 
indicators and information about the physical subject of the shot; 

2. as form - part of the design that lies on the surface plane of the 
screen and forms an overall abstract design that can produce a 
reaction in the viewer independent of any response to the content 
of the shot. 

The reduction of this aspect of the shot, its form, to a simplified 
diagram of line and shape has been termed the structural skeleton of 
the image. It reveals the perceptual elements that potentially can hold 
the viewer's attention over and above the interest in the content of the 

The construction of the structural skeleton of the plane of the shot 
does not simply rely on content. For example, every cameraman 
knows that a shot of a building can be made more interesting if the 
camera is moved from a square-on symmetrical viewpoint to an angle 
of view favouring more than one side or surface, and/or if the height of 
the lens is varied. Repositioning the camera is altering the structural 
skeleton for, while the content of the shot remains and is recognizable 
as 'a building', converging hues of rooftop, windows, doors, etc., have 
been altered and restructured to provide a more pleasing 'front 
surface' design (Figures 4.4(a) and (b)). 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 4.5 All parallel horizontal 
lines that recede into the distance 
appear to converge towards the 
horizon at one point known as the 
vanishing point. If the camera is 
level (i.e., without tilt), the horizon 
line will bisect the frame at 
midpoint. A line projected from 
the camera to the vanishing point 
will intersect all objects at a height 
equivalent to the lens 

Vanishing point 

All parallel horizontal lines that recede into the distance appear to 
converge towards the horizon hne. Receding parallel hnes above 
eye-line slope down, receding lines below eye-level appear to slope 
up towards the horizon (Figure 4.5) The position of the vanishing 
point in the frame wiU control the degree of convergence of any 
parallel hnes to the hne of the lens axis. 

A single vanishing point in the centre of the frame (e.g., level camera 
positioned in the centre of a street looking along the street with lens at 
half house height) will produce a very centralized composition with all 
the parallel lines of the houses meeting in the centre of frame. It could 
emphasize, for example, the conformity and rigidity in the planning of 
a housing estate but the shot may have httle or no compositional 
elements that hold the attention (Figure 4.6(a)). 

A very popular compositional device to emphasize the principal 
subject in the frame by focusing the strongly convergent hnes behind 
the subject is to place the vanishing point just outside the frame. 

Tilting tiie camera 

Panning the camera up will move the horizon line down and redistri- 
bute the proportion of the converging lines so that the upper set of 
lines will have a steeper angle than the lower hnes. Panning the camera 
down will move the horizon hne up and will have the reverse effect. 

A third influence on the degree of convergence will be camera posi- 
tion. Moving the camera back and using a longer focal length lens to 
keep in frame the original houses wih reduce the angle of convergence. 
Moving the camera forward and using a shorter focal length lens will 
increase the angle of convergence (Figures 4.7(a) and (b)). 

The final influence on the structural skeleton of lines will be to 
increase or decrease the camera height. Craning up and panning 
down win produce one set of converging lines. Craning down and 
panning up wih create another set of lines. 

These four camera parameters - camera height, tilt, lens-angle and 
camera position - in combination or singularly, all influence the struc- 
tural skeleton of the shot without altering content. 

Two-point vanishing perspective 

A camera positioned at the corner of a building with a lens positioned 
at half building height will produce a shot with two vanishing points. 
Depending on the framing and content, the vanishing points may be 
inside or outside the frame. 

Again the four camera parameters hsted above will have a signifi- 
cant effect on the convergence of hnes. Using a very wide-angle lens 
combined with a camera position close to the building will create the 
greatest angles of convergence. 

Three-point linear perspective 

If a camera is looking at the corner of a very tall building at lens 
position of eye height and is panned up to include the whole building, 
a third set of converging vertical lines is added to the two sets of 

The lens and perspective 


Figure 4.6 (a) A single vanishing 
point in the centre of the frame 
(e.g., level camera positioned in 
the centre of a street looking 
along the street) will produce a 
very centralized composition, with 
all the parallel lines of the houses 
meeting in the centre of the frame. 

(b) Panning the camera right will 
push the vanishing point to the 
left of the frame and produce a 
different set of converging lines. 

(c) A common compositional 
device to emphasize the principal 
subject in the frame is to place the 
vanishing point just outside the 
frame so that the strongly 
converging lines draw the eye to 
the main subject. 

Panning the camera right will 
push the vanishing point to the 
left of the frame and produce a 
different set of converging lines 
(b). Continuing to pan the camera 
right will position the vanishing 
point outside the frame (c) and 
progressively reduce the angle of 
convergence of parallel lines until 
they become horizontal at the 
point when the lens axis is at 90° 
to them 

horizontal converging lines. There are now three vanishing points in or 
out of the frame with the additional flexibility of altering all the angles 
of convergences with camera height, lens angle, camera distance from 
building and angle of tilt (Figure 4.8). 

Multiple vanishing points 

Any number of vanishing points are created depending on the variety 
and position of parallel horizontal and vertical lines in relationship to 
the camera lens. For example, a high camera angle looking down on 
the rooftops of a village has httle control over the structural skeleton 
of the shot apart from adjustment in framing. This becomes unimport- 
ant because the variety and interaction of the hues usually gives the 
shot sufficient visual interest without the need to control the angle of 

Horizon line and camera height as a compositional 

Our normal perceptual experience of someone of our own size moving 
on flat ground towards us is that the horizon hne wiU always intersect 
behind them at eye level. 

As was mentioned in Chapter 1, it was a fifteenth-century writer/ 
architect, Leon Alberti, who realized that the controlhng design factor 
when creating a two-dimensional image was the distance of the eye 
from the scene and its height from the ground. The crucial element in 
his construct was the horizon hne. This illusionary line where the 
ground plane meets the sky is also the point where all orthogonals, 
that is, parallel lines running at right angles to the horizon line, meet. 
This point is called the vanishing point. 

We are usually most aware of the horizon fine when we are by the 
sea. If we set up a horizontally level camera at eye level beside the sea it 
follows from Alberti's reasoning that as only horizontal lines can ever 
reach the horizon, the horizon line will appear to be at mid-point 
vertically in the frame. It wiU bisect the frame at its mid-point because 
only the centre axis of the vertical lens-angle is horizontal. 

If the camera is level, the centre axis of the lens will always be the 
only horizontal hne that meets the horizon therefore increasing or 
decreasing the lens height has no effect on the position of the horizon 
line in the frame. 

Of course, Alberti's explanation of our normal perception of Hnear 
perspective does involve two visual illusions. The first illusion is that 
the sky meets the sea when it obviously does not; second, that a visual 
sight line parallel to the sea would eventually meet this illusionary line 
at what is termed the vanishing point. 

Looking from behind the camera, we will see that the horizon hne 
will intersect the camera at lens height. If the lens height is 1.5 m then 
all 1 .5-m objects in front of the lens will be cut at the same point by the 
horizon line in the frame. 

If we tilt the camera down, the horizon line moves up the frame. If 
we tilt up, the hne moves down. But if we crane the camera up, keeping 
it level, the horizon line follows and continues to bisect the frame. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 4.7 A significant influence 
on the degree of linear 
convergence is the distance of the 
camera from the main subject. 
Moving the camera back (a) and 
using a longer focal length lens to 
keep in frame the foreground 
chess pieces will reduce the angle 
of convergence of a projected line 
at the top and at the base of the 
other chess pieces. Moving the 
camera forward (b) and using a 
shorter focal length lens will 
increase the angle of convergence 


If the camera is level, any object between the lens and the illusionary 
vanishing point on the horizon will be intersected by the horizon hne 
at the same height as the lens. 

American silent film production at the turn of the twentieth century 
used a convention of a 50 mm lens at eye level and actor movement 
was restricted to being no closer to the lens than 12 ft. With an actor 
standing 12 ft from the lens, the bottom of the frame cuts him at knee 
height. By 1910, the Vitagraph company allowed the actors to play up 
to 9 ft from the lens and the camera was lowered to chest height. 

Lens at eye level 

From these static camera positions there developed a Hollywood con- 
vention of frequently placing the camera at eye level, which in turn 
allowed the horizon line to cut the foreground actors at eye level. It is 
particularly noticeable in exteriors in westerns made before the 1960s. 
Whether the artistes are standing or sitting, the camera is often posi- 
tioned at eye height, which places the horizon behind the eyes. This 
emphasizes the main subject of the frame - the face - and the main 
area of interest of the face - the eyes (Figure 4.10). 

In television production, a more prosaic factor controlling lens 
height is the need to avoid shooting off the top of studio sets. 
Keeping the camera at eye level speeds up production as actor move- 
ment to camera can be accommodated without panning up and shoot- 
ing off the top of the set or without the need to relight. 

The lens and perspective 


Figure 4.8 If a camera is lool<ing 
at the corner of a very tall building 
and is panned up to include the 
whole building, a third set of 
converging lines is added to the 
two sets of horizontal lines 

Lens height 

The height at which the lens is set will also control the way the audi- 
ence identifies with the subject. Orson Welles, in the film 'Touch of 
Evil' (1958), played a fat corrupt detective in a Mexican border town. 
He directed the film and, by using a wide-angle lens and placing the 
camera at a low height looking up at this character, he created a 
brooding dominant personality who appeared to be towering over 
the audience and almost falHng forwards on to them. The impression 
produced by this lens height and angle was of an unstable but powerful 

Moving the horizon down below a person makes them more dom- 
inant because the viewer is forced to adopt a lower eye line viewpoint. 
We are in the size relationship of children looking up to adults. Leni 
Riefenstahl's film 'Triumph of the Will' (1934) about the 1934 Nazi 
Party Nuremberg Rally has frequent low-angle shots of Adolf Hitler. 
It increases his height and status and is contrasted with the high-angle 
'bird's eye views' of the massed ranks of his followers. 

A low lens height may also de-emphasize floor or ground-level detail 
because we are looking along at ground level and reducing or elim- 
inating indications of ground space between objects. This concentrates 
the viewer's interest on the vertical subjects. A high position lens 
height has the reverse effect. The many planes of the scene are empha- 
sized like a scale model. The viewer is in a 'God-hke' privileged posi- 
tion observing more than the participants in the scene. We are now 
adults looking down on children. 

Usually it is better to divide the frame into unequal parts by posi- 
tioning the horizon fine above or below the mid-point of the frame. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

4 ^ 


\e> 4 



Figure 4.9 On a flat surface, the 
horizon line cuts similar size 
figures at the same point. The 
height of that point is the height 
of the lens. The position of the 
horizon line is controlled by the 
degree of camera tilt, (a) Low 
angle; (b) lens at eye height; (c) 
high angle 

Figure 4.10 If the camera is at eye 
level, the horizon line (if it is in the 
frame) will pass behind the 
foreground actors at eye level. 
This emphasizes the main subject 
of the frame - the face, and the 
main area of interest of the face - 
the eyes 

Many cameramen intuitively use the Rule of Thirds (see Chapter 10) 
to position the horizon. A composition can evoke space by panning up 
and placing the line low in frame. Placing a high horizon in the frame 
can balance a darker foreground land mass or subject with the more 
attention-grabbing detail of a high key sky. It also helps with contrast 
range and exposure. 

A lens height of slightly above presenter eye height (whether stand- 
ing or sitting) is usually kinder to the face, provides a more alert and 
positive body posture and often improves the lighting on an artiste 
with deep set eyes, etc. 

Camera distance 

Our normal perceptual experience of someone of our own size moving 
on flat ground towards us is that the horizon hne will always intersect 
behind them at eye level. Looking at The Profanation of the Host 
painting (Figure 4.1) one can observe that Uccello has reduced the 
size of the tiles as they recede from the observer. The ratio of size 
change puzzled many painters until Alberti showed the common- 
sense arithmetic of how the reduction in size is directly proportional 
to the distance from the eye. 

A 1.5-m woman, 2 m from the lens, will produce an image that is 
twice as large as a 1.5-m woman, 4 m from the camera (Figure 4.11). 

Size relationships or the perspective of mass can be confused with 
the wide angle effect and the narrow angle effect. By this I mean that to 
increase the size of a background figure to a foreground figure it is 
common practice to reposition the camera back and zoom in to return 
to the original framing. The size relationships have now altered. It is 
not the narrower angle that produced this effect but the increased 
distance from the camera (Figure 4.12(a)-(c)). 

By tracking away from the two figures we have altered the ratio 
between lens and first figure and lens and second figure. It is a much 
smaller ratio and therefore the difference in size between the two is 
now not so great. When we zoom in and revert to the original full 
frame for the foreground figure we keep the new size relationships that 
have been formed by camera distance. The two figures appear to be 
closer in size. 

As part of our perception of depth depends on judging size relation- 
ships (the further away the subject is, the smaller it appears), our 
perception of this new size relationship produced by tracking out 
and zooming in leads us to believe that the distance between equal 
height figures is not so great as the first framing. 

Possibly, the narrow angle and the wide angle effect is misnamed. It 
should be called the distant viewing effect. Our eyes cannot zoom and 
therefore we are not so conscious of size relationships changing in 
normal perception. 

The important point to remember is that subject size relationship is 
a product of camera distance. How the subject fills the frame is a 
product of lens angle. This, of course, is the crucial distinction between 
tracking and zooming. Tracking the camera towards or away from the 
subject alters size relationships - the perspective of mass. Zooming the 
lens preserves the existing size relationships and magnifies or 
diminishes a portion of the shot (see Chapter 16, 'Movement'). 

The lens and perspective 


Figure 4.11 Size relationships are 
proportional to the distance of the 
subjects from the camera. The 
image of a 1.5-m subject 2 m from 
the lens will be twice as large as 
the image of a 1.5-m subject 4 m 
from the camera, whatever lens- 
angle is used 

Lens angle 

The choice of lens angle and camera distance from the subject is the 
controlling factor in the way that depth is depicted in the image. This 
subject is treated in more detail in 'Staging' (Chapter 15) but the 
'internal' space of a shot often plays a crucial part in setting up the 
atmosphere of a shot. 

A long focal length lens positioned at a distance from a cramped 
interior will heighten the claustrophobia of the setting. Subject size 
ratios will be evened out from foreground to background and move- 
ment to and away from camera will show no significant change in size 
and therefore give a subjective impression that no distance has been 

Controlling space with choice of lens angle/camera 

Both compression of space and the reduction of apparent movement 
caused problems in the editing of an 'all action' film, where a shot of 
two people struggling on a railway line with a train in the distance was 
shot with a long focal length lens. The visual impression, because of 
the compression of space, was that the train was nearly upon them, 
whereas the narrative required a great deal more action before that 
point was reached. Secondly, because the train appeared to have httle 
change in size over the duration of the shot, it had the appearance of 
moving slowly. This negated its threat to the protagonists and reduced 
the build-up of tension. A wide-angle lens close to the subject will 
increase space, emphasize movement and, depending on shot content, 
emphasize convergence of fine and contrast of mass. 

Placement of vanishing points 

Control of convergence becomes important when it is used to focus 
attention on the main subject of the shot. Converging hnes can be used 
to bring this foreground subject into prominence (see Figure 4.6(c)). 
The positioning of the vanishing point controls the convergence angles 
of receding parallel lines. By tilting or panning the camera the vanish- 
ing points can be placed within or outside the frame. Where the van- 
ishing point is positioned wiU have a considerable influence on the 

Figure 4.14(b) shows that Leonardo chose a central vanishing point 
where all orthogonals (receding parallels perpendicular to the picture 
plane) converge on the head of Christ. This 'implosion' of converging 
fines is in contrast to the square-on table position that in general tends 
to reduce the dynamic impact of an image. Placing the vanishing point 
at the central subject emphasizes the subject as being the centre of the 
view and therefore psychologically in this viewpoint, the centre of the 
world. If the vanishing point of these strong converging hnes was 
placed outside the frame or at the edge of the frame, the main subject 
of the painting could be seen as just another element in the frame. 

Many cameramen, in framing up a shot, will seek to maximize the 
convergence of hnes by choice of lens angle and camera height/posi- 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

tion. Shooting square-on to a subject usually keeps the vanishing point 
within the frame and often results in a strong emphasis on symmetry 
and simple balance, particularly if there are strong horizontal lines in 
the frame at 90° to the lens axis. By shooting at an obhque angle, the 
vanishing point is moved out of the frame and there is a greater 
emphasis of converging orthogonals. These form dominant groups 
of receding wedge shapes and give a greater dynamic attack to the 
image compared with strong level horizontal lines. Visual excitement is 
created by neighbouring paraUel hnes getting closer and closer 

Figure 4.12 The distance between 
the two figures remains 
unchanged in all three 
illustrations. The distance between 
foreground figure and camera has 
altered. With each camera 
reposition, lens-angle of zoom is 
adjusted to keep the foreground 
figure the same size in the frame. 
The 'wide angle' effect and the 
'narrow angle' effect is a product 
of the camera distance from 
subjects, (a) Mid-range; (b) wide 
angle; (c) narrow angle 

'Normal' perspective 

If an observer looks at a field of view through an empty picture frame 
held at arms length, he will require the frame to be progressively 
increased in size the greater the distance the frame is positioned 
away from him in order that the same field of view is contained within 
the frame at all times (Figure 4.16). 

As we have discussed, the perspective of mass and the perspective of 
line are created by the distance of the subjects from the observer. 

Size relationships and convergence of hne in his field of view will 
depend on their distance from him. Therefore if he does not change his 
position, the perspective appearance of the 'image' within the frame 
will remain unchanged. The frame will simply get larger and larger the 
further it is from the observer's position. 

If a photograph was substituted for the frame and increasingly 
enlarged to match frame size, the two factors that control the exact 
replication of perspective characteristics in an image are revealed as 
image size and the distance of the image from the observer. 

No lens produces a 'wrong' perspective provided the viewer views 
the correct size image at the taking distance. A wide-angle shot taken 
close to the principal subject would require the viewer almost to press 
their nose to the screen in order to experience the perspective charac- 
teristics of the image that they would experience if they had been the 

The calculation of which lens-angle provides 'correct' perspective 
(i.e., equivalent to an observer replacing the camera) must include 
image size of reproduction and the distance the viewer is to the screen. 
A person sitting in the back row of a cinema may be viewing a screen 
size that is a tenth of the size the audience in the front is experiencing. 
There is no lens-angle that can provide both viewing distances with 
'correct' perspective. The audience in the front row will experience 
wide-angle shots as having 'correct' perspective whilst the audience 
in the back row may judge narrower angle shots as having more 
'correct' perspective. 

Often a script requires interpretation rather than precise replication 
of 'correct' perspective. Interpretative compositions can therefore be 
created using perspective characteristics that expand or flatten space. 

To visually represent the sensation of vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, in a 
famous shot in 'Vertigo' (1958), had the camera tracking in matched to 
a zoom-out to keep the visual elements at the edge of the frame static 
(see Figure 4.16). Because the camera was moving closer to the subject, 
the image size relationships and line convergence in the frame changed 
and gave a greater impression of depth to the shot. The zoom-out 

The lens and perspective 


The apparent, relative size of an object in the frame is 
inversely proportional to its distance from the camera 

B will be 1/2 A C will be 1/3 A 

Without moving A, B or C how could 
this image be reproduced? 

Figure 4.13 


1 2 

Track out-zoom in-crab right 

compensated by keeping the same size image of the foreground subject 
producing an effect of space expanding without movement. This zoom 
effect has been used subsequently by Steven Spielberg in 'Jaws' (1975) 
and Martin Scorsese's 'GoodFellas' (1990) and many others. 

The internal space of a shot 

The internal space of a shot is a subtle but important part of the look, 
mood and atmosphere of the shot. As we have seen, when three- 
dimensional objects are converted into a flat two-dimensional image, 
size relationships will be controlled by camera distance to subject and 
lens angle. A small room can appear large using a wide-angle lens and 
a large room can appear cramped and condensed using a long focal 
length lens. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 4.14 (a) Leonardo da 
Vinci's The Last Supper. Where do 
the converging ceiling lines meet? 
See Figure 4.14(b). 

A medium shot of an actor can be achieved using a zoom lens with a 
lens angle that varies between more than 75° down to less than 5°. The 
wider angles wiU produce possible distortion of features or exagger- 
ated body movement but the crucial distinction between using this 
range of lens angles is that to keep the same size medium shot, the 
camera will move further and further back from the main subject as 
the lens angle is decreased. This will alter the size relationship between 
foreground and background - the internal space of the shot will be 

Production style and lens angle 

So what lens angle should be selected? This will depend on the mood 
or feel of the shot and the action that it is to contain. For visual 
continuity during a scene, or even for the whole production, a limited 
range of lens angles are often decided upon. For example, one style of 
production may consistently use a wide-angle lens producing a series 
of shots that emphasize movement towards or away from the lens 
giving a great deal of internal space to the shots. This is often accom- 
panied by a low camera height emphasizing ceihngs and dynamic 
converging lines of walls, buildings, etc. 

Another 'internal space' style is to use long focal length lenses to 
produce compressed space, extended movement towards and away 
from the camera and a general mood of claustrophobia. Frequently 
this style is accompanied by a lack of 'geography' shots (e.g., shots 
that provide information about setting or locale). Shot in tight close- 
up, the action is followed without revealing the location, resulting in a 
series of images with swirling backgrounds that generate pace without 
information. The viewer is sucked into the mystery and teased with a 
lack of precise visual clues as to the surroundings. 

The choice of the lens angle is therefore dependent on how the 
action is to be staged and the visual style that is required. The nar- 
rower the lens angle the more difficult it becomes to achieve smooth 
and fluid camera development and movement. The camera has to 
travel further to achieve size change or movement on a narrow lens 

The lens and perspective 


Figure 4.14 (b) The 'implosion' of 
the projected converging lines of 
the ceiling and side panels 
meeting behind the head of Christ 
emphasize his central importance 
in the composition 

Figure 4.15 The screen size of the 
reproduced image will increase 
proportionally to the viewing 
distance if the original perspective 
experienced by the observer at 
distance Z from the subject is to 
be duplicated. 

The viewing distance Z of 
screen A is too close to reproduce 
a 'natural' perspective and would 
simulate a 'wide angle' look at 
that viewing distance. 

Screen B would simulate a 
'narrow angle' viewpoint because 
the screen size is too small for 
viewing distance Z 



Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 4.16 Keeping the subject in 
mid-shot, the camera tracks out 
while zooming in to keep the 
subject image the same size. 
Because of the increasing camera 
distance and narrower lens angle, 
a smaller and smaller portion of 
the background is included in the 
frame. The visual effect is to 
freeze the subject in space as the 
background apparently flows out 
either side of the frame 

than on a wide angle; is more prone to movement vibration or un- 
steadiness on very narrow angles; and requires larger and more precise 
focus pulls. 

Estimating distance 

There are a number of perceptual clues that are used to estimate dis- 
tance or space. The depth indicators include binocular vision, which 
allows convergent and divergent movement to be estimated by the use 
of 'two' viewpoints. Subjects moving towards or away from the obser- 
ver alter the size of the image focused on the retina of the eye. This 
change in size may not be accurately appreciated, as perception often 
involves deductions from what is known rather than what is seen (see 
Chapter 3). Objects that overlap and their size relationship, if they are 
similar sized objects, indicate their relative position in space. Colour 
change due to atmospheric haze and hazy outline at long distance also 
aid depth perception. Similar objects moving at different velocities also 
indicate their spatial relationship. 

AU these depth indicators can be used in film and television compo- 
sition not only to replicate normal perceptual experiences but also to 
create atmosphere or to interpret narrative requirements. The decrease 
in size of objects as they recede from us is used continuously to check 
on distance. In can also help to create a false distance. The final scene 
in 'Casablanca' is set inside an aircraft hanger with the doors open, 
reveahng an aeroplane. There was insufficient space in the studio to 
have an aircraft at the distance required so a scale model was built and 
'casting' recruited midgets to move about close to the scale model to 
give it verisimihtude. In 'Night of the Hunter' (1955), during the chase 
sequence in the swamp, a silhouette figure on a horseback crossing the 
skyline is not Robert Mitchum as implied in the story but a midget on 
a small pony. 

Accentuating depth 

To emphasize depth in a shot: 

• use overlap of subjects to show foreground and background rela- 

• use camera movement to cover or uncover objects in the frame; 

• use camera movement past foreground subjects and a changing 
background on crabbing movements; 

• subjects moving towards the lens or away from the lens will create 
more depth than subjects moving across the frame; 

• lighting treatment can create depth indicators (see Chapter 13 
'Lighting and composition'); 

• exploit depth indicators of relative brightness. By making dark 
close and bright objects in the background, the eye will be carried 
into the frame and perceive depth in the shot; 

• avoid square-on shots of subject (see Figure 4.4). Show as many 
planes and sides of the subject as possible to emphasize depth; 

The lens and perspective 53 

• accentuate line convergence by the choice of lens angle and focal 


No camera - still, film or video - can record an image without leaving 
an imprint of the optical properties of its lens, its position in space and 
some indication of the reasons for selecting that lens position. One of 
the crucial factors that condition the 'look' of the shot concerns per- 

The form ('structural skeleton') of a shot, its dominant hues and 
shapes, can potentially hold the viewer's attention over and above the 
interest in the content of the shot. The construction of this 'structural 
skeleton' is dependent on the distance of the camera from the subject 
and the lens angle, which control the size relationships within the 
frame - the perspective of mass. 

The choice of lens angle and camera distance from the subject is the 
controlling factor in the way that depth is depicted in the image. Lens 
height and camera tilt will control hne perspective. Shooting low with 
a level camera will produce one type of line perspective; shooting from 
a high vantage point tilted down will produce another set of line 
relationships in the frame. 

The important point to remember is that subject size relationship is 
a product of camera distance. How the subject fills the frame is a 
product of lens angle. This is the crucial distinction between tracking 
and zooming. 

Visual design 


Figure 5.1 Changing size 
relationsliips in the frame is a 
simple way of eliminating 
competing visual interest (a). 
Moving the camera left and either 
changing lens angle or camera 
distance will establish one 
subject's dominance in the 
composition (b) 

All unbalanced composition appears accidental and incomplete. There 
is no structure to the image and any part of the frame could be masked 
with no loss of meaning. There is insufficient arrangement of shapes to 
assist in grasping the reason for the image. It is ambiguous and unable 
to hold visual attention beyond the initial search for understanding. 

This style of 'non-composition', although sometimes used in alter- 
native technique productions, is seldom the preferred practice in main- 
stream broadcasting and film making where it is customary, when 
framing up a shot, to employ various visual design techniques to 
emphasize one aspect of picture content. This may be one person 
amongst a group or one object amongst a number of objects. 

The need to guide the attention of the audience is usually part of the 
overall aim of a production which, by selectively structuring its mater- 
ial, communicates the intended meaning. Composition is part of film- 
making technique employed to solve the perennial questions of what 
does the audience need to know, how will they be told and at what 
point in the production should they be told? 

Visual design is another way of describing this process. It is the 
selection and control of a number of competing elements for the audi- 
ence's attention within the frame. A shot of a railway terminus, for 
example, may provide information about train times, train types or 
feature a perplexed traveller who has lost his luggage, as well as the 
main storytelling reason for the shot, which may be to show that a 
railway employee is carrying a gun. Apart from this essential element, 
the rest of the visual information is superfluous to the storyline and 
must be subdued or eliminated. How the shot is set up will reveal the 
film maker's priorities but frequently the audience's interest in the 
location or setting will intrude and compete with the main subject 
unless all competing visual elements are unobtrusive. 

One of the aims of good composition is to find and emphasize 
structural patterns that the mind/eye can easily grasp. One of the 

Visual design 55 

problems in compiling a 'flow chart' of how the mind perceives an 
image is the speed at which the perceptual process functions. There are 
rarely discrete steps that can be hsted in order, as frequently the mind/ 
eye instantaneously uses all the component parts of perception to 
grasp the relevance of an image. The speed at which visual information 
is absorbed and often unconsciously acted upon is an everyday activ- 
ity. Visual deductions, evaluations and decisions flow through the 
mind/eye at a rapid rate without pause to consciously analyse or 
deliberate on the continually changing visual 'cacophony'. Television 
and film images frequently have the same complexity. The difficulty in 
describing how effective composition works is that no one ingredient 
acts in isolation. Each of the different groupings by shape, hght/dark 
contrasts, line, colour, etc., can be individually part of perception or 
they can, depending on the content of the shot, be the dominant ele- 

It is worth stressing the flexible nature of composition 'rules' for film 
and television productions before we discuss the variety of visual 
design techniques that can be employed. Think of the various visual 
design components as a list of cooking ingredients that can be com- 
bined in numerous different recipes. What ingredients are used wifl 
depend on what meal is being cooked. All of the visual design 'ingre- 
dients' cannot be used in the same shot. 

There is also the compositional effect of pleasing the eye. Should all 
shots be aesthetically pleasing? Should slum shots be beautifully com- 
posed? Obviously every shot need not be a 'Rembrandt' but essentially 
it should be subservient to the overafl purpose of the production. Like 
any aspect of invisible technique, if a shot is so striking that it disrupts 
the fiow of images, it may draw attention to itself and defeat its main 
purpose of advancing the story or factual explanation. A visually 
dynamic shot is sometimes dehberately placed by the director (for 
example the shots of Monumental Valley in a John Ford western), 
to create atmosphere or location identity. 

Two aspects of a film/TV production often dominate and cancel the 
deployment of any visual design principles. Movement takes preced- 
ence over compositional balance and also sound will frequently direct 
attention to a part of the frame and create atmosphere and space 
beyond the visual aspects of the shot. However effective a composition 
is in emphasizing the principal subject in the frame, movement or 
sound will often distract attention and override the visual design of 
the shot. 

The 'movies' have always emphasized this unique selling point. By 
staging spectacular action, and by means of story structure, camera- 
work and editing, the audience is given a roller-coaster ride of non- 
stop movement. Even news camerawork often gives a priority to 
movement over a static frame. 


There are many visual design generalizations that can be applied to 
art, photography, graphics, film and television compositions but with 
one significant and influential exception; as well as considerations of 
space, tone, mass, colour and hne when creating an image, film and TV 

56 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

compositions also have to accommodate movement. Human percep- 
tion is invariably attracted by movement. At one stage in human 
history, survival may have relied on instantly being aware of change 
in the environment and movement indicates change. It may have tilted 
the balance between successfully gathering food or being 'gathered' as 
food by a predator. 

In many ways this is an advantage, as movement is a strong atten- 
tion grabber. Film and TV images can hold the audience's attention 
simply by movement, but there is a compositional price to pay. A well 
composed static shot is easily unbalanced by subject or camera move- 
ment. Either attention is switched to the element in motion or the 
frame becomes unbalanced. 

Camera and subject movement interact and there are customary 
ways of dealing with the compositional problems this involves. 
Through long experience, film and TV practitioners have evolved a 
number of visual conventions to accommodate and to maximize the 
value of movement within the frame. These techniques are discussed in 
Chapter 16, 'Movement'. 

Frequently a shot will have to be set up for a constantly changing 
image pattern. All the following comments about the variety of visual 
design techniques available should be read with the understanding that 
movement will always interact and upset the dynamics of a static 

There is a further composition distinction between how movement 
can be dealt with in the separate shot technique of film and video 
productions and the limitation imposed by multicamera 'real time' 
television productions. This latter type of programme has to deal 
with movement as it occurs with no opportunity to smooth out com- 
positional difficulties that occur from shot to shot in the timescale of 
the action. With thought and subtle editing technique, movement can 
be rearranged in the 'screen time' of the single shot film/video tech- 
nique to eliminate distracting movement between shots and still 
maintain continuity. 

In multicamera 'real time' productions, for example, every step and 
every arm movement will remain through succeeding shots only mod- 
ified by the director's abihty to stage movement of camera and artistes 
to avoid the most conspicuous disruption. In film, an actor can leave 
shot and can be cut to immediately in the following shot seven paces 
away. In multicamera productions every step has to be accommodated 
in the camera coverage. 

In general, movement within the frame usually takes precedence 
over all other compositional devices in attracting attention. 


Dialogue or other elements of a soundtrack will often control which 
subject in a frame is dominant, overriding any visual balance/compo- 
sitional design of a shot. The design of a soundtrack is a large subject, 
comparable with composition. Sound and pictures complement each 
other and the influence of sound on how an audience will understand 
an image must often be taken into consideration when framing up a 

Visual design 


It is a well-worn truism that radio drama has the best pictures. 
Sound so often breaks the boundaries of the hteralism of images. 
With many images there is no added value to the depiction of the 
subject. Sound is frequently a much more creative medium than 
image, working on the senses without being obvious. Sound can 
achieve very strong effects and yet remain quite unnoticeable. The 
production contribution of sound is usually the most unobtrusive 
and difficult for the audience to evaluate - until it is badly done. 
Visual awareness appears to take precedence over audible awareness 
and yet intelUgibihty, space and atmosphere are often created by 
sound. The selection and treatment of audio shapes our perception 
and can be used to focus our attention just as effectively as the selec- 
tion of images. It therefore needs as much thought and technique as 
the equivalent camerawork technique of structuring and framing shots 
for editing. 

A soundtrack foghorn, a church beU or a car driving away off-screen 
can save a great deal of footage that would otherwise be needed to 
create the required information or atmosphere. The opposite is the 
case in actuahty coverage where an intrusive out-of-frame sound, for 
example, of children, animals or traffic, is swamping an interview. An 
additional shot may be required to inform the audience of the source 
of the problem in order for it to become partially acceptable. Sound, 
like movement, wiU nearly always take precedence over visual design. 

Controlling composition 

There may be a number of reasons why the composition of a shot 
needs to be organized. These include: 

• a need to direct the audience's attention to one part of the frame in 
order to emphasize one important element, e.g., one person within 
a group or one feature of a complex subject; 

• a production need to compose a shot that wiU create atmosphere, 
mood or a location identity; 

• to provide essential or new information. 

Figure 5.2 Perceptual grouping by 
size and proximity can emphasize 
the 'odd one out' that does not fit 
the pattern. This is a straight- 
forward compositional method of 
emphasizing the main subject in 
the frame 

Primary decisions 

To achieve any one of these objectives, the first consideration is to 
decide the position of the lens in relation to the subject. The choice of 
lens position wiU determine: 

• Camera angle: camera angle describes the camera's position rela- 
tive to the subject. A three-dimensional subject will display differ- 
ent facets of its design according to the viewpoint of its observer. 
Moving the camera's position left or right, up or down, will sub- 
stantially change the appearance of the image. 

• Lens angle: varying the angle of view of the lens includes or 
excludes additional information. It can magnify subject size and 
emphasize the principle subject. 

• Camera distance: the distance of the lens from the principle subject 
controls the linear perspective of the shot and this can have a 
significant influence on composition through the variation in con- 

58 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

verging lines. Often the camera distance and the lens angle are 
adjusted simultaneously to produce changes to size relationships 
in shot. 

• Camera height: changing the height of the camera alters the rela- 
tionship between foreground and background. A low camera 
height emphasizes foreground and condenses or eliminates reced- 
ing horizontal planes. A high camera position allows a 'plan view' 
and shows position relationships over a wide area. There is also a 
subjective aspect of lens height that influences how the image is 

• Camera tilt: camera tilt is often used in combination with lens 
height and shifts the horizon (real or unseen) in the frame and 
adds emphasis to ground or sky. 

• Frame or aspect ratio (see Chapter 6), subject in focus and depth-of- 
field will also have a significant effect on visual design and are 
discussed later. 

Control of composition 

Control of composition is achieved by the ability to choose the appro- 
priate camera technique such as viewpoint, focal length of lens, Ught- 
ing and exposure, in addition to employing a range of visual design 
elements such as balance, colour contrast, perspective of mass/line, etc. 
A well designed composition is one in which the visual elements 
have either been selectively included or excluded. The visual com- 
ponents of the composition must be organized to engage the viewer's 
attention. A starting point, as mentioned in Chapter 1, is often to 
follow the old advice to simpHfy by elimination, and to reduce to 
essentials in order to create an image that has strength and clarity. 

Emphasizing the most important element 

Composition involves drawing attention to the main subject and then 
making it meaningful, but often a shot can be selected on a visual 
decision that ignores all but one part of the image. The poor composi- 
tional relationship between this area and the total frame may only 
become apparent after the event has been recorded. One of the more 
obvious mistakes therefore is not to see the whole picture but only that 
part which has initially attracted interest. 

There is a puzzHng piece of advice about camerawork that urges all 
students to 'Look before you see'. In essence this simply means to look 
at the overall image, and at its underlying pattern, before concentrat- 
ing too much on the main subject. Developing a photographic eye is 
giving attention to all visual elements within the field of view and not 
simply selecting those elements that initially attract attention. With 
experience comes the ability to visualize the appearance of a shot 
wherever the lens is positioned, without the need to continually 
move the camera in order to look through the viewfinder to see 
what the shot will look like. Before deciding camera position, lens 
angle, framing, etc., it is worth considering the foUowing questions: 

• What is the purpose of the shot? 

• Is the shot fact or feeling? Will the image attempt to be factual and 
objective and allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions or is 

Visual design 



The degree of convergence in 
parallel receding lines is controlled 
by lens angle, camera distance, 
camera height and camera tilt. 

The size relationship between 
foreground and background 
objects will be determined by 
camera distance from subject 
and lens angle. 

Figure 5.3 

Camera distance from subject will 
control the change in subject size 
moving to and away from the lens. 

The position of the 
horizon line where 
it cuts similar sized 
figures will reveal 
camera height and 

The position of the 
vanishing point 
and the angle of 
dynamic lines in 
the frame is 
controlled by 
camera position. 

it the intention to persuade or create an atmosphere by careful 

• In what context will the shot be seen? What precedes - what 

• What wiU be the most important visual element in the shot? 

The best viewpoint is the lens position in space that emphasizes 
the main subject. Make certain that the eye is attracted to the part of 
the frame that is significant and avoid conflict with other elements 
in the frame. 


that the purpose of the shot is understood; 

that the main subject is identified; 

that the camera parameters (lens position, angle, height, etc.) 

emphasize the principal interest; 

that any leading fines point to the main subject; 

that any supporting visual interest within the frame maximizes its 

support for the main subject and use framing and lens position to 

eliminate or subdue competing areas of interest; 

that the dominant interest is offset and balance this with less 

important elements; 

that attention is kept within the picture space and avoid placing 

principal information in the corner of the frame; 

if the image can be simplified by reducing to essentials. 

Design techniques 

In addition to the choice of the lens position, there are a number of 
visual design techniques that can be applied to a subject or subjects 
that wiU allow the cameraman to control the attention of the viewer. 
Showing the audience where to look is a significant part of framing a 
shot. This can be achieved by: 

• grouping and organization 

• similarity by proximity 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 



Figure 5.4 Wherever it is practical, 
it is better to arrange the subjects 
in a shot so that they are linked by 
grouping and organization. The 
scattered five dots on the side of a 
dice are instantly seen as '5' if 
they are arranged in a pattern. 
The pattern need not be as 
geometrically rigid as (b) but 
loosely form part of a shape that 
the eye can easily perceive 

• similarity of size 

• similarity by closure 

• similarity of colour 

• visual weight. 

Grouping and organization 

A useful characteristic when setting up a shot is the perceptual tend- 
ency to group and organize items together to form a cluster of shapes 
to make up a total image that can be fully comprehended in one 
attentive act. Some elements are grouped together because they are 
close to each other. Others are bound together because they are similar 
in size, direction or shape. 

'Seeing' is not simply a mechanical recording by the eye. 
Understanding the nature of an image is initially accomplished by 
the perceptual grouping of significant structural patterns. One of the 
aims of good composition is to find and emphasize structural patterns 
that the mind/eye can easily grasp. 

One theory that attempts to explain the brain/eye's tendency to 
group and simplify, is that the images formed by the lenses of the 
eyes are picked up point by point by millions of small receptor organs 
that are largely isolated from each other. Rudolph Arnheim in Art and 
Visual Perception (1967) suggests that the brain, at the receiving end of 
a mosaic of milhons of individual messages, pieces them together by 
the rules of similarity and simplicity. Similar size, direction of move- 
ment or shape are instantly grouped together and a complex image can 
then be understood by a few clusters of shapes. 

Composition must therefore aim to create a unifying relationship 
between the visual elements of an image in order to feed the perceptual 
system with patterns that can be easily assimilated by the observer. 

Similarity by proximity 

Grouping objects together because they are near to each other in the 
frame is the simplest method of visual organization. One of mankind's 
oldest examples of perceptual grouping is probably the patterns 
imposed on isolated and unconnected stars to form the signs of the 
zodiac (see Figure 5.4). Grouping a foreground and a background 
object by proximity can achieve a coherent design in a composition. 

Figure 5.5 From Language of 
Vision, Gyorgy Kepes (1961) 

'sp ati 1 org anisati on isthe vit alfacto rin a nopticalm essage' 

'spatial organisation is the vital factor in an optical message' 

Visual design 61 

Proximity of objects in tlie frame can also create relationsliips tiiat 
are unwanted (e.g., the example of objects behind people's heads that 
appear on the screen as 'head wear'). 

Similarity of size 

Same size objects in a frame will be grouped together to form one 
shape or pattern. The most common example of this principle is the 
grouping and staging of crowd scenes. 

This grouping by size and proximity can be used in a reverse way to 
emphasize one person in a crowd scene by isolating the individual so 
that they cannot be visually grouped with the crowd (Figure 5.2). 

Because of the assumed similarity of size between individual people, 
staging people in the foreground and in the background of a shot 
allows visual unity in the perception of similar shapes and also an 
effective impression of depth indicated by the diminished image size 
of the background figure. 

Similarity by closure 

Searching for coherent shapes in a complex image, human perception 
will look for and, if necessary, create simple shapes. The more con- 
sistent the shape of a group of visual elements the more easily it can be 
detached from a confusing background. Straight fines wfil be contin- 
ued by visual projection (see Figure 3.4), curved lines tfiat almost form 
a circle wfil be mentally completed. 

A popular use of this principle is the high angle shot looking down 
on a seething crowd moving in one direction whilst the principal figure 
makes a desperate journey through the crowd in the opposite direc- 
tion. We are able to keep our attention on the figure because of the 
opposing movements and also because we mentally project their 
straight-line movement through the crowd. The principal figure 
would soon be absorbed within the crowd if they frequently changed 

Similarity of colour 

Objects grouped by colour is another effective method of composi- 
tional organization. Uniforms and a team's sportswear are finked 
together even if they are scattered across the frame. Identicafiy 
coloured dance costumes for the chorus in musicals are used to struc- 
ture movement and to emphasize the principals dressed in a contrast- 
ing colour scheme. But the opposite can also be effective. In a dance 
sequence in 'Top Hat' (1935), Fred Astaire in white tie and tails is 
backed by a chorus of identically costumed male dancers. Their unity 
as a group is held together by proximity, size and lighting. His separa- 
tion and emphasis is achieved by being in the foreground and therefore 
a more dominant figure and by choreography which emphasizes the 
principal dancer. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 








Figure 5.6 (I) Symmetrical 
balance; (2) balance by mass; (3) 
stable figure; (4) unstable figure 


Because of the effect of perceptual 'reorganization', no visual element 
can exist in isolation within the frame. Within the act of perception, 
the eye/mind groups and forms relationships of the shapes it has 
organized (see Figure 3.4). 

One relationship is balance: the relative visual weight of one clump 
of visual elements compared with another and their individual rela- 
tionships to the whole. 

A technological definition of balance is the state of a body in which 
the forces that act upon it compensate each other. Camera operators 
will know that when they mount a large lens on the camera there is the 
need to pull the body of the camera back on the pan/tilt head until the 
point of balance has been achieved - the seesaw principle where a 
small child at the extreme end can be balanced by an adult sitting 
opposite but much closer to the pivot point. There is also another 
aspect of balance connected with a combined group of objects such 
as lens, matte box, camera, pan bar, viewfinder, etc., which is con- 
nected to their overall centre of gravity and the physical position of 
that point of balance. This is the centre of balance of the combined 

Balance in a composition is distributing the visual elements across 
the frame so that a state of equilibrium is achieved for the whole. 
Equihbrium need not mean at rest for, as in the seesaw analogy, 
balance can still allow movement and therefore visual interest. 

As with a camera mass, a visual pattern has a centre around which 
the visual elements are grouped. The pivot point need not be and 
frequently is not the centre of the frame. Balance can be achieved by 
visual weight determined by size, shape (a regular shape is heavier than 
an irregular shape), colour, light/dark relationships, isolation of a 
pictorial element, direction and the intrinsic interest of content. For 
example, the observer's wishes and fears induced by the image may 
outweigh any perceptual considerations of balance. For many people, 
a snake moving in any part of the frame will capture their attention 
irrespective of any other compositional design. Pictorial balance is 
often achieved with this type of psychological weight. 

The content or objective of the image will determine which type of 
visual weight will be chosen to be pictorially reorganized when com- 
posing and staging the shot. Balance helps to emphasize the most 
important visual element. 

Only the content can determine which pattern can be created by 
balancing out colour, mass, direction, etc., and which aspect of visual 
design is to be chosen and subjected to the business of pictorial organ- 
ization. The function of visual design can be shown only by pointing 
out the meaning it helps to make visible. 

The resolution of balance 

Figure 5.7 A square-on two shot 
with equal emphasis, but one 
person can dominate by dialogue, 
positioning, lighting, etc. 
('Breathless', 1959, dir. Jean-Luc 

The two factors that determine balance are visual weight and the 
direction of movement of the visual pattern. Visual weight is condi- 
tioned by its position in the frame. A visual element at the centre or 
close to the central vertical axis has less weight than one at the edge of 
the composition. An object higher in the frame is heavier than the 

Visual design 


same size object in the lower part of the frame. An object in the right 
of the frame (for most Western observers) will have less compositional 
weight than if it was positioned in the left of the frame. 

Similar to the seesaw principle (see Figure 5.6 (1)), visual weight 
increases proportionally the further it is from its point of balance. A 
small significant object in the background will balance out a larger 
object in foreground. 

The resolution of balance in a composition therefore requires small 
to be weighted against large with reference to the centre and outside 
edges of the frame in order to achieve unity of the total image. A small 
'weight' in the composition can be placed a long way from the centre if 
a balancing large weight is placed close to the centre (Figure 5.6 (2)). 

'Weight' need not only be differences in the physical size of balan- 
cing visual elements. Balance can be resolved with line, mass, hght/ 
dark, colour, etc. 

Balance and ambiguity 

Balance is a means of eliminating ambiguity and visual confusion. 
Without visual organization the message becomes confused, as the 
observer is stuck with a visual hypothesis with insufficient information 
to form a conclusion. 

But a visual intention to confuse, discomfort or even disorientate the 
viewer also has a pedigree in mass entertainment. It is a popular style 
in television pop programmes where flashing and moving lights, star 
filters and extreme flare degrade the image to produce an impression of 
the atmosphere of a club. 

Music videos, with a great deal of post-production work, elaborate 
this style and often aim to tease and invoke visual excitement by a 
string of unstructured shots, subliminal cuts and multi-images. 
Exploiting changes in technology, many youth programmes use con- 
tinuously moving hand-held cameras overlaid with moving graphics in 
an attempt to emulate the rave experience of a 'drug'-induced buzz of 
disorientating images. As very little information can be assimilated 
with such a confusion of images, the style becomes the content that 
is being communicated. 

Figure 5.8 Five ways of 
concentrating attention on tlie 
main subject: (a) convergence of 
bacl<ground lines; (b) contrast of 
tone; (c) contrast of position; (d) 
contrast of size; (e) contrast of 

Dynamic balance 

Finding a dynamic balance requires not only positioning small with 
large or hght with dark, etc., but also finding finking patterns to the 
main balancing duafity. 

Our experience of the physical properties of objects provides us with 
the knowledge that an object that is very large at the top and tapers to 
a very small base is likely to be unstable and easily toppled. The 
equivalent visual weight is attached to a large object at the top of 
the frame and a smaller object at the base. The composition appears 
to be unstable and transient (see Figure 5.6 (4)). 

A dynamic balance that provides plenty of audience interest or 
visual excitement can be created either by the use of converging lines 
(see Chapter 4) or the competing contrasts between different masses, 
light/dark relationships, colour or the use of a wide-angle lens working 
close to the main subject in movement. A wide angle on a camera 

64 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

moving between equal-sized objects (e.g., trees, buildings, etc.) pro- 
duces images witli rapid clianges in size. 

Balance can be disrupted by a visual element that makes a sudden 
appearance in the frame. If the audience anticipates that something, 
for example, maybe behind the door, the delay in satisfying this suspi- 
cion will heighten the suspense. The audience is invited to speculate on 
where the 'ambush' will come from. The usual convention is to let the 
audience down quietly, assuaging their fears before hitting them with a 
surprise element from a totally new direction. 

The invisible narrative element that is outside the frame can carry 
strong visual weight when composing for the unseen. The audience 
connects the dots between what they are shown and what they ima- 
gine. Leaving a blank part of the frame invites the audience to antici- 
pate something wiU fiU that pregnant space just as a conspicuous door 
in the background of a shot wiU condition the audience to beheve that 
it will soon be opened. Other 'unseen' elements can be used to moti- 
vate a pan. In David Lean's 'Ryan's Daughter' (1969), the camera 
pans across a schoolroom wall foUowing the unseen footsteps on the 
other side of the wall until the shot reaches a door which opens to 
reveal the invisible 'walker'. 

Strong visual film/TV images are often used sparingly. A rich diet of 
dynamic images that zap the eyeball every second will soon need to 
accelerate to greater and greater extremes to hold the attention of a 
visually exhausted audience. Greater impact is often achieved by a 
single high-impact shot placed amongst a conventional set of shots 
(e.g., the high shot from the top of the New York UN building looking 
down on the film's central character as he leaves the building in 'The 
Man Who Knew Too Much' (1956). 

Avoid the visual monotony of positioning the principal subject of 
the composition in the same part of the frame for every shot. Try to 
achieve variation and variety in composing each shot except when 
intercutting on dialogue between two people (see Standard shot 
sizes. Chapter 12). 

Formal balance 

Formal balance in a composition is achieved by having equal visual 
weight on either side of the frame placed symmetrically around a 
central main subject. Although formal balance emphasizes the main 
central subject's importance, its symmetrical solemnity precludes 
visual excitement. Many examples are seen in religious art of figures 
grouped either side of the main subject (see Figure 13.1 The 
Martyrdom of San Sebastian). The overall atmosphere of such a bal- 
ance is to suggest peace, harmony or a lack of conflict. Another form 
of classical balance is by the use of the Golden Mean (see Past influ- 
ences. Chapter 10). 

The type of artiste staging required for a formal composition 
requires static grouping. Any movement wiU probably unbalance the 
formality and disturb the emphasis on serenity. It is the type of bal- 
ance used in rehgious themes or a critical moment of someone on their 
death bed with relations or friends placed either side of a square-on 
shot from the foot of the bed. 

To hold visual attention, it is necessary to provide greater visual 
complexity. A formal central grouping of figures balanced around the 

Visual design 65 

centre of the frame, although assimilated, instantly fails to provoke 
further curiosity. Once the eye has swept around the central shape it 
has visually 'consumed' all that has been provided. To entice the eye to 
take a second tour, less obvious visual relationships need to be dis- 
covered. The eye and mind must be fed with visual variations 
embedded within the basic dominant pattern, although it must always 
be remembered that the eye takes the visual path of least resistance. 
Unravelling a very complex set of visual variations may mean a 'switch 
off' for the majority until easier shots come along. But visual variety 
provides the stimulation necessary for holding the attention. 

The formaHty of such compositions are almost like a freeze frame 
and their necessary static quahty has a limited screen time before the 
need for movement to reinvigorate the audience attention becomes 

The square-on two shot of Figure 5.7, staged to give equal weighting 
to the two artistes, would provide audience interest if the dialogue 
switched between the two presenters. Sound, as we have mentioned, 
attracts attention and this breaks up the static quahty of the formal 


Whereas a balanced composition aims to promote a sense of equilib- 
rium or stabihty, dissonance in a compositional grouping induces a 
feeling of discord or of resolution still to be realized. 

Effective dissonance in music is not created (except by accident) by a 
non-musician aimlessly pressing groups of notes on a piano. It is based 
on the application of the theory of harmony. Dissonance in visual 
composition requires the same understanding of technique in order 
to achieve controlled disharmony. 

For many centuries, the aim of composition in Western painting was 
to weld all the elements of the painting into a pictorial unity to achieve 
balance. The concept of dissonance - compositional elements dehber- 
ately offset in order to create visual tension - only entered composi- 
tional technique to any extent in the nineteenth century. 

With the advent of 'snapshot' photography in the 1860s when expo- 
sures of 1/50 second were possible, many artists were influenced by the 
random photographic compositions of people in motion. Degas was 
one of the first artists to use decentralized compositions with the main 
subject offset to the edge of the frame (see Figure 10.3, the Degas 
reproduction in Chapter 10, 'Past influences'). 

A new pictorial convention emerged of cutting off part of an 
object by the frame to imply that the action continued outside the 
frame. If the observer is led out of the picture frame, there is set up 
an expectation or curiosity in the viewer that is not satisfied by the 
framed image. The composition is unresolved (see 'A hard cut-off'. 
Chapter 6). 

Dissonant compositions are therefore dehberately structured to 
evoke a sense of incompleteness. Just as there is a strong wish to 
straighten a picture hung crookedly on a wall, a well-structured dis- 
sonant shot will evoke the same feehng of a composition seeking to 
achieve balance. The friction and conflict that is set up can convey a 
strong sense of unresolved tension as well as creating interest and 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 5.9 Dissonance in a 
compositional grouping induces a 
feeling of discord. The offset 
framing and the eye line out of 
frame unbalances the shot and 
sets up a sense of visual disquiet 

Dissonant arrangement of subject matter creates a dynamic tension. 
But increasing tlie degree of unbalance to an extreme might collapse 
into visual anarchy and produce a composition of random items that 
have no relationship. 

Dissonance is as necessary to good composition as balance. 
Offsetting balance creates interest. Achieving balance can satisfy the 
urge for symmetry but quickly becomes uninteresting. If balance is a 
full stomach, then dissonance is an appetite that needs to be satisfied. 

A modern reason for using visual dissonance is the wish to suggest 
that an unbalanced composition reflects the disorganized unsettled 
contemporary world - the fragmented uncertainty of existence. This 
embraces the view that there is no certainty - no consensus on a single 
viewpoint. AU values are relative. 

Divided interest 

Figure 5.10 Because of the 
Western tradition of scanning text 
from left to right, the movement 
of the line in (a) appears to be 
travelling uphill whereas the 
movement of the line in (b) 
appears to be going downhill 

A composition with divided interest, where the eye flicks back and 
forth between two equal subjects, is a composition that will cause 
the audience a problem of deciding what they should be looking at. 
One subject must be made subservient to the other by placement, size, 
focus, colour or contrast (see Figure 5.1). 

Mirror reverse/stage left 

It has often been demonstrated with Western art that images are habi- 
tually scanned from left to right - the normal reading process. Theatre 
staging often takes account of this fact in the knowledge that the 
audience will automatically look to the left, the 'strong' side of the 
stage, as the curtain rises. Another consequence of a 'left/right' bias is 
that many formal balanced compositions can be destroyed if mirror 

The normal scanning of an image from left to right appears to give 
less weight to an object on the left than if it is placed on the right of the 
frame. A theatrical convention of the 'strong' left side and 'weak' right 
side is that traditionally the Fairy Queen enters stage left whilst the 
Demon King enters prompt (right) side. 

Figure and ground 

The relationship between 'figure' and 'ground' is fundamental to an 
understanding of perception and composition. Figure describes the 
shape that is immediately observable whilst ground defines that 
shape by giving it a context in which to exist. Figure is the prime visual 
element that is being communicated but can only be transmitted in a 
relationship with a ground (Figure 5.11(a) and (b)). 

This may sound a rather academic analysis when setting up a shot 
but many heated arguments about production budgets often revolve 
around the cost of shooting at special locations in order to stage action 
against an appropriate background. Film financiers consider the fore- 
ground artistes to be where the money is - the background is dressing 
or atmosphere. The smaU piece of 'scenery' seen over the shoulder of a 
medium close-up (MCU) requires the expense of a large unit on loca- 
tion, but apart from aU the other visual value of an appropriate loca- 

Visual design 


Figure 5.11 Figure describes the 
shape that is immediately 
observable whilst ground defines 
that shape by giving it a context in 
which to exist. A ground can be 
visually simple or complex but 
still remain subservient to the 

Figure 5.12 With some subjects, 
there is indecision as to what is 
figure and what is ground. Figure/ 
ground flip is when different 
visual elements reverse their role. 
The vase shape disappears when 
two profiles are recognized 

tion, backgrounds are essential to tell the story. It is surprising how 
many documentaries/factual programmes stage a piece to camera 
against a bland featureless background and throw away the atmo- 
sphere of the location. 

In composing a shot there needs to be an integration of subject 
(figure) and background (ground). There needs to be control between 
foreground and background so that the background does not domin- 
ate the main subject in frame. 

Figure need not be physically closer to the lens than ground, 
although that part of the image that is seen as figure is often perceived 
as being closer to the viewer regardless of its position in the frame. 
Figure is usually smaller in area than ground and figure/ground can- 
not be seen simultaneously. They are viewed sequentially. Figure is 
seen as having form, contour or shape whilst ground is seen as having 
none of these characteristics. 

Any visual element in the frame that stands out and achieves prom- 
inence wiU be considered by the observer as figure even if this object 
has been assessed of no visual importance by the cameraman. Hence 
the infamous background object that sits neatly on a subject's head, 
totally ignored by the snapshotter whose concentration is wholly 
centred on what he considers is the only 'figure' in frame. When two 
or more objects are grouped together they are perceived as one 'figure' 
even though the cameraman may have mentally marked out one of 
them as 'background'. 

Figure/ground flip 

A characteristic of ground is that it visually recedes and its detail is not 
noticed. There may be a number of figures in a frame and the visual 
elements that make up figure and ground can change their role as 
attention moves from one subject to another (Figure 5.12). This is 
termed figure/ground flip. 

Figure/ground flip occurs when shape, tone or contour of ground 
becomes more dominant or is perceived as more dominant in the 
image. This can happen with a frame-within-a-frame shot, such as 
an entrance in a wall. The entrance and the visual detail it frames 
function as the figure with the wall as a featureless ground. If the 
observer's attention is allowed to switch to the waU, which is now 
perceived to have texture and contrast, this becomes the figure with 
the entrance becoming ground. The shot will quickly lose impact as the 
two 'figures' fight for attention (Figure 5.1(a)). 


Controlling the figure/ground relationship requires emphasizing the 
importance of the selected figure by fight, brightness, colour, differen- 
tial focus, texture, position, etc., whilst removing suificient visual detail 
from the ground to avoid it competing with the figure (Figure 5.13). 

The cameraman's craft is directed towards controlhng the viewer's 
attention on figure whilst remembering that ground is equally import- 
ant as it defines foreground. They are separate yet they work together. 

The use of a very narrow-angle lens can blur the distinction between 
figure and ground. As the focal length of the lens increases, with the 
camera further from the subject, size relationships between objects at 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 5.13 The window and the 
visual detail it frames functions as 
the figure with the interior wall as 
a featureless ground. If the 
observer's attention is allowed to 
switch to the interior, this is now 
perceived to be the figure with the 
window becoming the ground 

different distances from tlie lens are not so marked as in 'normal' eye 
perspective and all visual elements in the frame may achieve equal 
importance. The accompanying narrower zone of focus of objects at 
a great distance from the lens helps to discriminate between the 
intended figure and its out-of-focus ground. 

Camouflage deliberately intends to deceive the observer in deciding 
what is figure and what is ground. Living creatures confuse their 
adversaries by attempting to 'break up' their overall shape and form 
by a fragmented, unsymmetrical pattern similar to their background 
habitat. Poor visualization by a cameraman of what is figure and what 
is ground in an image can achieve the same confusion. 

It is easy to overestimate the psychological or narrative importance 
of one element when setting up a shot and underestimate its actual 
visual dominance within the frame. It may well have strong narrative 
importance but does it look visually significant? Many snapshots fail 
because the attention, when the photograph was taken, was wholly 
concentrated on one element of the field of view usually because it 
had strong personal significance. Even though it fafls to hold the 
attention of a wider audience, the print may stfll have a strong sub- 
jective interest to one or two individuals because they will continue 
to ignore all but the main subject in the frame when looking at the 

Visual design 


Figure 5.14 Although there are 
two Maltese crosses displayed, 
the cross whose main axes 
corresponds to the vertical and 
horizontal edges of the frame is 
usually selected as the figure with 
the other cross becoming the 
ground. The frame edge reference 
is very influential in determining 
the subject priority 


One of the basic Gestalt theories of perception is that we tend to 
simphfy visual patterns as much as the image will allow in order to 
grasp the significance of the image. The shape or outside boundary of 
an object is perceived as one dimensional, even though our knowledge 
and experience of the world demonstrates that the majority of objects 
exist in three dimensions. 

This outside boundary, the shape of an object, plays a significant 
part in visual composition because of the ease and speed of grasping its 
simple pattern and relationships. If shapes become too abstract and 
ambiguous, however, then, as the wide variety of responses to the 
same Rorschach ink blob test demonstrates, individual states of 
mind and memory will control interpretation. 

Simplicity and economy have always been valued in visual com- 
munication in the search to reduce to essentials in order to clearly 
communicate. Shape is a simple, visually easily 'digestible' element in 
a composition and, when setting up a shot, a few similar shapes 
should be looked for that can be grouped to reinforce the overall 
impact of the image. The space between forms also create shapes and 
can play a part in the design of a shot. It is said that Mozart was not 
so interested in the notes as the spaces in between. But whereas a 
painter has complete flexibility on where to position shapes and 
forms on a two-dimensional surface for maximum design potential, 
the director and cameraman have to deal with a three-dimensional 
world of solid objects that are usually not amenable to rapid resizing 
or relocation. 

Grouping visual elements by overall shape 

Similar shape is an effective way of unifying an image in order to make 
it easily comprehensible. The three basic regular shapes of oval, trian- 
gle and circle can be used in a variety of ways, such as in the grouping 
of people or objects. A shot can be strengthened if the visual elements 
are structured so that the eye follows one of the basic shapes around 
the frame. 

Triangle and oval forms are the most flexible and accommodating in 
enclosing shapes and many cameramen, when they run their eye 
around a potential shot, are seeking this kind of relational shape to 
bind the composition together. A triangle composition is a closed form 
from which the eye cannot escape. 

The overall shape of a composition also indicates mood or charac- 
ter. The triangle with a broad base is considered to have strength and 
stabihty. A popular, if unconscious, reflection of this is the shot of the 
newsreader who sits with elbows on the news desk making a 'trust- 
worthy' triangle. 

The triangle is a very flexible shape as a design element in a com- 
position. The cameraman can control the shape and impact of a tri- 
angle by choice of lens-angle, camera distance and height. The fine 
convergence forming the boundary of a triangle within a composition 
can be altered and arranged to provide the precise control of the 
compositional elements. The inverted triangle is weaker but can be 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

The ability to analyse shapes in an image rather than simply seeing 
the content is an essential step in developing an eye for composition. If 
there appears to be a lack of unity in the image, and if the main subject 
appears to be fighting the background, then it is more than likely that 
an overall leading shape line around the frame is missing. Search for 
background shapes or re-light for background shapes that wiU connect 
and relate to foreground. 

Light/dark relationships and the compositional relationship 
between a bright spot and its location are dealt with in Chapter 13, 
'Lighting and composition'. 


As well as the physical lines within a shot that channel eye movement, 
there can also be invisible lines (e.g., eye line), that directs visual 
attention. The movement of the observer's eyes may create curved 
lines in its journey around the shot. Avoid fines that divide the 
frame into equal parts (split screen) and dominant fines at the edge 
of frame that may alter the aspect ratio and appear as if the image is 
cropped. Some hnes lie flat on the surface of the image whilst other 
lines recede into the distance and add depth to the shot. 

Line is a powerful picture-making design component and can be 
used to structure the attention of the observer. Within the frame, 
any visual elements that can be perceptually grouped into lines can 
be used to direct the eye around the image from one part of the picture 
to another to end, preferably, on the main subject of interest. 
Attention is attracted to where two fines cross or one line abruptly 
cfianges direction. The eye is attracted to the point of convergence of 
the lines or the implied point of crossing. In practice, a hne need not be 
visible to act as a strong compositional element but it can be implied, 
such as the hne of a person's gaze. 

The vertical line 

Figure 5.15 An upright line 
appears balanced, a diagonal line 
implies movement and a 
horizontal line is at rest 

An isolated vertical subject such as a tree or a tower has directness and 
rigidity. It is immediately seen and takes visual precedence over any 
horizontal or other fines in the frame. The human figure in a landscape 
immediately attracts attention, not only because of its psychological 
importance but also because of this vertical aspect. It has been sug- 
gested that an image consisting of strong vertical elements can convey 
dignity, solemnity and serenity. 

The strength of a vertical visual element in a composition means 
that some kind of design elements have to be introduced to estabfisfi 
image unity. Usually a vertical line requires a fiorizontal element to 
cross it at some point in order to acfiieve a satisfactory composition. If 
a vertical fine simply divides the frame, two disconnected images wfil 
be created - a spht screen. The most common use of the vertical line is 
to link two competing areas of the picture to achieve unity. This could 
be a carefully positioned tree to connect landscape with sky or a strong 
vertical line in a piece of furniture or architecture to link the lower half 
of the frame with the top. This vertical element should have its greater 
proportion in what is being estabfished as the dominant area or subject 
of the picture. 

Visual design 


The leaning line 

Diagonal arrangements of lines in a composition produce a greater 
impression of vitality than either vertical or horizontal Hnes. A line is 
most active when it runs from corner to corner. A tree before it is 
felled is a hne that is vertical and stable. From the moment it is cut 
down it begins its journey to becoming a horizontal line and static. Its 
most potent and active angle as a hne is at 45° where its rush to 'rest' is 
most keenly anticipated. A hne at an angle is perceptually seen as a 
line that is in motion unless it is so marginally off vertical it could 
be simply the result of camera set-up. Compositions with a strong 
diagonal element imply movement or vitahty. 

Convergence of lines 

As we have seen, the distance from lens to subject, lens angle and 
camera height are a decisive influence on the convergence of lines 
within a frame. Lines of convergence can be placed to have as their 
focus the dominant subject in the frame. Strong pictorial lines can be 
controlled by lens position to lead to and emphasize the main subject 
(see Figure 5.22). 

Line of beauty 

The eighteenth-century artist, William Hogarth, identified seven dif- 
ferent curved lines and picked out one of these as the most perfect 'hne 
of beauty'. It is similar in shape to the line of a woman's back and has 
been dubbed the 'S' curve. It occurs frequently in Michelangelo's 
paintings and is seen in natural form in such things as wind-swept 
arable crops and the upward swirl of flames (Figure 5.16). 


Line of beauty 

Figure 5.16 Line number 4 was 
considered by Hogarth to tiave the 
most attractive shape 

One of the useful compositional uses of curved fines in an image is to 
guide the eye to the main point of interest. A straight fine takes the eye 
immediately from point A to point B. A curve can move the eye 
around the frame in a less direct movement and knit disparate ele- 
ments together on the way. A curve has the advantage of being a 
progressive change of direction that aUows a softer visual movement 
around an image, compared with the zigzag pinball movement of 
straight hnes (see Figure 5.18). Also, unhke straight lines, curves do 
not interact with the edge of frame either in direction or by compar- 

Rivers, roads, the hne of a hiU or hedge, banister rails, etc., can all 
be used to rhythmically knit a composition together. Where curves can 
be duplicated and repeated in different sizes, then not only will a great 
deal of visual interest be set up, but the spaces between objects 
enclosed by the boundary hnes of the curved shapes have a greater 
visual interest. The 'ground' to the image wiU have greater vitality even 
though it will still act as an anchor to the overall design. 

The strength of a composition created by curves can be increased by 
an aU-over pattern across the frame and by the strong contrast of light 
and shade. Shadows of foliage, decorative wrought iron railings, grilles 
and blinds, etc., wiU provide pattern. Even straight-hne shadows, such 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 5.17 Lines of convergence 
can be placed to have as their 
focus the dominant subject in the 
frame. Strong pictorial lines can 
be controlled by lens position to 
lead to and emphasize the main 

as sunlight through Venetian bUnds falling on a curved surface, can 
provide another source of controlled pattern and curve in the frame. 
Curves can also be implied by repetition of the same type of object and 
this effect can be emphasized by the use of a long focal length lens. 

A curved lead-in line to the main subject of interest has always been 
one of the most common techniques to get the observer into the frame 
and then out again. There is often an inclination to try to avoid such a 
cliched technique but the perceptual experience is that it is effective, 
that it holds and guides the attention of the viewer and that alternative 
'lead-in' devices can just as quickly become visually devalued and 

Using foreground curved shapes to mask off part of the picture to 
produce a frame within a frame is often employed to break up a series 
of rectangle compositions. As previously mentioned, the classic tight 
over-the-shoulder blanking off the side of the frame by a silhouette 
head and part of the shoulder is a simple way of achieving a new frame 

Rhythm and visual beat 

'^^ferf-' . 

Figure 5.18 The curved lines of 
car headlamps on a city street at 
night lead the eye into the picture 

Figure 5.19 A curved lead-in line 
to the main subject of interest has 
always been one of the most 
common techniques to get the 
observer into the frame 

Rhythm and pattern describe two aspects of a linked series of visual 
elements. Pattern can be defined as a design or figure repeated across 
the frame, such as bricks in a wall viewed from a square-on position. A 
wallpaper design may have an indefinite repetition of a few shapes. 

Rhythm, whilst occurring in pattern, can also be present without 
repetition. Visual rhythm can occur in the relationship between a series 
of shapes or lines such as a crabbing shot that has foreground objects 
wiping across the frame. These may be equally spaced such as columns 
(pattern) or irregularly spaced but still forming a relationship. 

Musical rhythm developing over time would appear to be quite 
different from the experience of perception where it is often assumed 
that an understanding of an image is grasped instantaneously. But the 
mind/eye moving over a series of visual accents in an image can 
respond in a similar way as the mind/ear experiences hstening to a 
series of rhythmic accents. If a connected series of visual accents are 
present in the image, then it can be said that a visual beat has been 
established. Sunlight modulated by a row of trees falUng on a car 
travelUng along a road will produce a rhythm of pattern and light. 
The repetitive pitch of a boat will create a regular sweep of light 
through a porthole onto a cabin waU. Both of these examples are 
created by movement but static pattern and rhythm exist in nature 
(the structure of petals in a flower, desert sand formations) and in 
man-made objects (bridge girders, field patterns, motorway junctions). 

The eye readily follows a line or curve in an image and is corre- 
spondingly affected by any repetition of direction or movement of hues 
or shapes it is led on to. It is the transition between repetition of hne 
and shape that sets up the rhythm of the image and by implication can 
be extended by the eye/mind to continue outside of the frame. Rhythm 
needs direction and flow and is strongest when it coincides with the 
natural eye-scan movement from left to right. 

Repetition of camera movement can set up a visual rhythm such as 
crabbing across a series of foreground objects as mentioned above, or 

Visual design 


.^^W^^^^^jS.. " fc^*ft- ^^»^ 



Figure 5.20 A high-angle shot of 
office desl<s and worl<ers provides 
a 'regimented' pattern across the 

a series of zooms or tracking shots towards a subject tliat are identi- 
cally paced. This is often used in dream or fantasy sequences to create 
an atmosphere of movement without end. Rhythm can express con- 
flict, serenity or confusion and has a strong impact on the front plane 


Pattern was defined as a design or figure repeated indefinitely. Visually 
it is strongest if the repetition can occur across the whole of the frame 
and if the repetition includes a large number of the repeated shapes. 

Static pattern in a composition can be uninteresting in the same way 
that overemphasis on symmetry becomes flat and stale. A shot of a 
building that has regular windows patterned across the frame will have 
Uttle impact because the pattern is the centre of interest and, unless a 
second element is introduced to act as a dissonance or counterpoint to 
the pattern (e.g., shadows or camera angle, etc.), the composition may 
not sustain attention. 

Moving patterns, however, can create interest and involvement 
if compositional control of the image is understood. Repetition or 
pattern may be present in the normal field of view but the observer 
may be unaware of it. Placing a frame around a portion of the field of 
view will isolate and emphasize the repetition. 

Creating patterns 

For example, a shot of a pavement crowded with shoppers with a 
camera position looking along the pavement using a 25° horizontal 
angle of view lens wiU result in a continuous change of subject moving 
towards and away from the camera. Patterns of people will be created 
but it will be difficult for the viewer to focus on any one element. 
Random movement is difficult to observe and to enjoy. There is no 
centre of interest and no one object to contrast and compare with 
another. The pattern of the people is changing too rapidly. 

To control pattern, frame a similar shot of the shoppers but this 
time use a long focal length lens of 5° or under to create a pattern of 
people who stay longer in frame and therefore allow a pattern relation- 
ship to be set up. Creating repetition of equally sized shapes by the use 
of a long focal length lens creates multiple appearances of similar 
objects which, because of camera distance, stay longer in frame. 

This is because - as we discovered in the discussion on the perspec- 
tive of mass - the image size relationship of subjects in shot will 
depend upon the camera distance from the objects. If similar sized 
subjects such as people are walking towards camera or away from 
camera at a distance (e.g., 50 m) and are framed using the narrow 
end of the zoom (e.g., 5° or under) the effect wiU be of Uttle or no 
change in subject size coupled with a lack of anticipated movement. 
Because of the distance of the camera from the subject, there is not the 
anticipated change in subject size usually experienced when people 
walk to or away from an observer. Movement without changing size 
is the equivalent of running on the spot and creates the surreal dream- 
hke quality of flight without escape. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 5.21 Repetition of the same 
shape plus the curved rows 
provide a strong visual pattern 

Making patterns out of people dehumanizes them because it robs 
tliem of personality. It makes crowds into abstract statements. This 
type of composition is frequently used when a voice-over narration is 
discussing changes in inflation or shopping habits, etc. It is very diffi- 
cult to find shots to illustrate abstract concepts such as 'inflation' or 
'devaluation', topics that often require news footage. 

Shots of cars, rooftops, a portion of a mass production process 
(e.g., bottles moving on a conveyor belt) can be used to create similar 
abstract patterns. A repetition of the same shape that either moves 
across the frame in a regular rhythm (e.g., the bottle) or is held 
within the frame for a longer period than is normally experienced 
by the use of a long focal length lens compressing space, can provide 
attractive decorative images. They are created by camera distance, 
lens angle and the movement of the subject towards or away from 
the lens. 


Possibly the strongest design element that can be used in a composi- 
tion to capture attention is for the content to have a strong emotional 
or psychological connection with the viewer. Either the subject of the 
shot has a personal association or it features a famihar human experi- 

The personal connection can simply be a photo of a location, some- 
one known to the viewer or a loved person. Millions of snapshots are 
treasured not for any intrinsic photographic values but because of the 
innate interest of their subject. This does not prevent a photo having a 
strong subjective interest and also having quahties that would appeal 
to a 'disinterested' observer with no involvement with the subject. 
Home videos of domestic or hoUday topics can be shot so that they 
have a much wider appeal beyond their participants or their friends. 
The usual weakness of home movies is their inabihty to separate sub- 
jective interest from the considerations of structure and design. The 
content of the video dominates its form. 

The most extreme examples of identification are life-threatening 
situations created by fictional or factual events. It is often puzzling 
to lay people that professional photographers in war zones or those 
covering civil catastrophes can still instinctively frame up and find the 
right angle of view to make 'decorative' images. They can still pay 
attention to technique, to the mechanics of recording the image, whilst 
the content would appear to be so overpowering that any normal- 
feeling person would wish to intervene or help. 

The separation of content, whatever its personal implications, and 
the technique needed to record it is part of the professional character 
of anyone who aspires to cover highly emotional factual situations. 
Many people do not have, or wish to have, the detachment necessary 
to keep filming when people are in extreme distress or danger. But even 
in less hfe-threatening situations, the ability not to be involved in order 
to stand back and, with professional detachment, consider the visual 
potential of an event, is essential. 

The personal significance of the content of a shot wiU always be the 
most powerful design element in attracting attention but by its pre- 

Visual design 


Figure 5.22 Although the figure In 
the distance Is small, the eye is 
irresistibly drawn to it by the 
converging lines 

sentation (compositional design) its appeal can be broadened to 
involve and engage a much wider audience. 


Witliin the frame there may be a visual element that produces a strong 
sense of visual movement. A row of poplar trees or a wall, for exam- 
ple, may produce a line that creates a dominant hne of movement - a 
visual direction that is difficult to ignore. 

This strong sense of movement can either be built into the composi- 
tion and provide a leading hne to the main subject or it can be 
balanced against other movement or mass to tone it down or reduce 
its impact. As we have seen, diagonal hues are the most active within 
the frame and, in particular, diagonal converging hues pull the eye hke 
a signpost arrow. 

These direction indicators pick up the eye and carry it across or 
around the frame. There must be a resolution to a vigorous movement 
of directional lines or the composition will be perceived as lacking an 
essential element. It is similar to a pan that sets up expectation as it 
moves to a conclusion, only to disappoint if the end image is uninter- 
esting. A strong directional line that leads nowhere in the frame is a 
frustrated journey. 


Colour as a design element is such a powerful force that it requires a 
separate discussion (see Chapter 14). 


A great deal of our understanding of the physical nature of the world 
around us is achieved by comparison of size. We often achieve recog- 
nition of an object by its proportions and its normal size relationship 
with other objects. A 3-m-high shirt button would require a moment 
to categorize before we had estabHshed a new frame of reference. 
Whereas it would be instantly recognized as a button if it was at the 
size we normally see it. 

A frame around an image seals off most of its frame of reference and 
can cause problems in recognition unless it is a very famihar object 
such as the human face or figure. Most people have been visually 
tricked by a close shot of a model replica when the camera pulls 
back to reveal it is as a fraction of the size of the original. Some objects 
need to be set in context in order to visually communicate clearly 
without any confusion of their identity. 

A composition can achieve an impact by introducing an indication 
of scale or size comparison. It may be simply contrasting one subject 
with another - a small child in a large space or an ocean hner being 
pulled by a small tug. Viewers unfamiliar with the subject depicted 
may need some indication of size by comparison with a known object. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 5.23 

The human figure is the most easily recognized and most often used 
in size comparisons. An over-used technique is the familiar zoom out 
from a presenter (see Figure 5.23(a)) to reveal that he or she is located 
at the top of an enormous bridge, building or natural feature (see 
Figure 5.23(b)). This shows scale but requires a great deal of 'dead' 
visual between the start and the end of the shot, which are the only two 
images that are being compared. 

More attractive compositions can be achieved by using a high angle 
position looking down, for example, into a valley to see a winding 
road with a vehicle moving along it or a train puffing through the 
hills. This type of image appeals to most people's general fascination 
with model layouts where the spectator can take up a detached posi- 
tion and observe a scene without being part of it. 

The proximity of one subject to another allows a frame of reference 
to be estabhshed and associations and comparisons to be made. The 
same factors are at work over time with adjacent shots allowing a 
development of new information or continuity in storyteUing. 
Proximity of subject allows judgements of scale and connections. 
Proximity in time allows continuity and the relationship between 
visual references which constructs an argument. 

Whereas in Figure 5.24(a) the cinema image is viewed in near dark- 
ness with no visible object surrounding the screen, the television image 
is always in proximity with the objects surrounding the TV set (Figure 
5.24(b)). The moving image on the screen holds the attention against 
the surrounding competition of wallpaper, furniture, ornaments and 
people. The combined two-dimensional designed composition includ- 
ing scale indicators has now to contend, when viewed, with a three- 
dimensional environment. 



■-• Air 
MM/ p 

_iinniiiram/i _ 1 



Figure 5.24 

The main theories of the psychology of perception are based on the 
concept of the perceptual process being an active exploration of form 
and structure to achieve recognition. Recognition usually involves 
categorizing and naming the object or process. Perceptual exploration 
involves assessing the abstract elements of the image such as shape, 
colour, brightness points, contrast, texture, movement and spatial 

Recognition by establishing patterns, and grouping by similar 
shapes, etc., appears to play an important part in the interrogation 
and exploration of the visual world. Pattern and form can be 
abstracted from any complex subject and depicted as an image, inde- 
pendent of normal object recognition. An abstract image can therefore 
be defined as form and colour, independent of subject. It is form with- 
out a figurative content and is often created by eliminating or limiting 
the contrast between figure and ground. 

An abstract image can also be achieved by simplification. A shot of 
undulating sand on the sea shore will have form, texture and contrast 
but will have an all-over pattern across the frame that binds the com- 
position together. 

Reducing or eliminating depth indicators often results in a greater 
abstract element in a design. Without space or depth in a shot, form 

Visual design 


Figure 5.25 The visual appeal of 
an abstract image often relies 
on form, texture or colour 
independent of subject 

and design are concentrated in a two-dimensional pattern. This is 
often seen in shots of reflections and subjects with strong texture. 

Although film and television camerawork often aspires to be 
unequivocally factual and reahstic, the images are displayed on a flat 
screen. This two-dimensional representation often reveals abstract 
designs in the most mundane subjects. Long focal length lenses or a 
narrow zone of focus emphasize form and shape; elimination or reduc- 
tion of depth indicators, interaction between figure and ground, sim- 
phfication and the over-all repetition of similar shapes aU tend towards 
creating abstract pattern and the basic building blocks of the percep- 
tual process. 

Understanding an image 

The viewer can only see the image that is selected and presented to 
them. Of all the thousands of images that could be filmed and recorded 
on any one subject, the choice of what is presented is whittled down to 
a few hundred. Those few images are considered to be the most eco- 
nomical way of visually presenting the message to be communicated. It 
is obviously assumed and hoped that the selected shots will be under- 
stood only in terms of the intention of their originators. A verbal 
instruction of 'Please close the door' would obviously be seen to 
have been a failed communication if a window was closed instead. 
How can anyone framing up a shot be certain that the viewer's under- 
standing of the image will be identical to their own? 

People's hopes, wishes, fears and personal viewpoint play a major 
part in their perception. If one person is terrified of spiders, any smafl 
scrap of material that is blown across the floor may invoke unreasoned 
anxiety. The same 'misreading' of visual images occurs especially if 
they set up associations with opinions strongly held. Our perception or 
appreciation of an image depends upon our own way of seeing. 

One solution to avoid visual misunderstanding or 'misreading' of an 
image is the use of stereotypes. There is a huge repertoire of stereotype 
images usuaUy related to the seasons of the year or rites of passage. 
They are sometimes impossible to resist if a story requires, for exam- 
ple, an indication of Christmas. There are a dozen or more well-used 
visual cliches that can instantly be used to communicate 'Christmas'. 
Offsetting the colour balance to get blue exteriors and warm welcom- 
ing yellow, interior-lit windows, star filters for Christmas lights, par- 
cels under the tree, instantly establish atmosphere and setting. The 
problem with such visual cliches is that they are all but drained of 
their impact. They are simply references to previous well-used images 
and are therefore instantly recognized and instantly consumed. They 
lack any visual development or attention-sustaining design. 

There are other visual stereotypes such as images of gender, race or 
religion that may be pressed into service unexamined by the camera- 
man. Roland Barthes (1973) labels these visual symbols as 'mythic'. 
Not in the sense of being mythologies, fairy stories or false but having 
the weU-used appearance of being 'natural' or 'common sense'. They 
are the unexamined prejudgements and assumptions about life nur- 
tured by a specific cultural background that find expression when an 
image is sought to express an attitude or idea. A newsreel sequence 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

may feature angry or violent people in a street demonstration because 
the cameraman was briefed to search for shots containing 'action' to 
illustrate the event. He or she may have ignored thousands of inactive 
protesters as lacking 'visual' interest. 

Shots may express indicators of attitude or feeling that are uncon- 
sciously understood by the viewer. A shot behind a row of prison bars 
looking out wiU evoke a different response to a shot looking through 
the bars into a cell. The shot has conditioned or positioned the view- 
point of the viewer to be either as a prisoner or as a visitor to the 

Reference by association is common in commercials where images 
are carefully manufactured to make a connection between a product 
and a result. For example, a shampoo bottle and glamorous hair are so 
conjoined in the same shot as to render it impossible not to draw the 
conclusion that one leads to the other. There is a density of visual 
themes that imply rather than state overtly their commercial message. 
The most common visual theme implies that if you are able to buy this 
product you will be lovable. If you cannot buy it, you wiU be less 

The viewer, when searching for the best explanation of the available 
visual information, may add their own interpretation whilst being 
unaware of the hidden visual message they are absorbing. 

Often, a film or television image is not simply a record of an event 
but becomes an event in itself. The image is then used to symbolize a 
process or condition. The student standing in front of an approaching 
tank in Tiananmen Square (Figure 5.26), the street execution of a 
kneeling enemy prisoner, a young person engulfed in flames running 
towards the camera, are images that have implications beyond the 
horrific action portrayed. They continue to be recycled as symbolic 
images or icons rather than existing as the specific event recorded. 

Figure 5.26 The student standing 
In front of an approaching tank in 
Tiananmen Square is recycled as 
a symbolic image independent of 
the specific event recorded (CO 
1989 Cable News Network Inc. All 
rights reserved) 

Taking the eye for a walk 

Although perceptually we have an awareness of a large field of view, 
only a small segment can receive our full attention. It is necessary for 
the eye to continuously make smaU eye movements called 'saccades' in 
order to scan an object. It is similar to the eye movement necessary to 
examine each word of text on a page. The eye scanning around the 
frame is an important aspect of composition. 

In the West, a page of text has a structure to allow the information 
to be read out in the correct sequence. Starting from the top left of the 
page to bottom right there is no misunderstanding the path the eye 
must traverse. There is no similar learnt procedure for scanning an 
object or image unless a dehberate perceptual route is built-in that 
channels the eye movement along a preplanned path. 

In order to take the eye for a 'walk' around an image there needs to 
be a start-point and an end-point positioned within the composition. 
In a shot with deep perspective indicators, a common solution is by 
way of a series of zigzags using a path, stream, wall, etc., which is 
connected to the base of the frame. This should steer the eye's atten- 
tion to the principal subject and then connect up with another visual 
element to return the eye to the start-point. Getting into the picture 
requires creating one spot that immediately attracts the eye and then 
lead it on towards the principal subject. The 'way in' to the composi- 

Visual design 79 

tion must not be too visually dominant or it will act as a competing 
interest to the main subject. 

Emphasizing the main subject involves control of the eye movement 
across the frame. The eye travels the hne of least resistance and in its 
movement around the frame it is similar to a pin-ball bouncing off 
different obstacles before being forced by the designer of the composi- 
tion to end up at the main subject of interest. An interesting composi- 
tion allows the eye movement moments of repose and this stop/start 
journey creates visual rhythm. The strongest rhythms occur in 
patterns. Organization of the image requires the eye to be shown 
new unsuspected spatial relationships between similar shapes, similar 
tone, texture or colour. 

The positioning of smaU and large objects, light and shadow edges, 
colour connections, etc., can aU act as visual guides around the image. 
The essential requirements are that they should lead up to and empha- 
size the position of the main subject before being led away for the start 
of a new journey. A weU designed composition will provide new visual 
interests for the second and possibly third circuits. If the main visual 
route into and out of the composition is the 'melody' of the piece, the 
secondary design elements can provide variation on top of the main 

Strong horizontal hues form a barrier across the frame and require a 
visual method to 'jump' across to avoid bisecting the frame into sec- 
tions. A tree or similar upright will allow the eye to move over this 
division of the image. 

The visual exit from the composition need not be positioned at the 
same point as the start but can be a bright spot, for example, leading 
to infinity in the distance. What should be guarded against is an exit 
that leaves the majority of the frame unexplored. The designer of a 
maze intends the traveller to make a few circuits before discovering the 
centre and then they are aUowed to search for the exit. A well designed 
image has one entrance for the eye, one principal subject and then 
several routes to the exit. This can be accomplished with the main 
elements forming a pyramid, for a strong unified composition, or a 
circle, which has the virtue, as the classical symbol of unity, of unifying 
and simpHfying the composition. It keeps the eye within the frame. For 
a more dynamic composition, an irregular shape allows for eye move- 
ment that is diverse and asymmetric. Avoid placing the brightest part 
of the image at the edge of frame. 

The other distraction to a weU-organized visual tour is allowing the 
eye to get too close to the edge of the frame and then be led out by 
speculating on what is beyond the frame (see closed frame above). 

Reading left to right 

Control of eye movement on a page of text is by way of left-to-right 
scanning and by structuring the text in fines and paragraphs. The habit 
of reading left to right is culturally so strong that it is claimed Western 
readers use the same left-to-right scan when looking at paintings, 
cinema and theatre. This may be a consideration when staging posi- 
tions in a set up. 

Also important is the eye scan between shots. For example, the 
circuit rail of a racecourse should be roughly the same position in 
frame when intercutting on a race. In a western shootout, intercutting 

80 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

on two opposing gunfighters requires the gun barrels to be positioned 
at the same height in each shot. Like an eye Hne out of frame, they are 
pointing at each other. 

An audience may anticipate the expected position of interest in an 
incoming shot but this anticipation can be betrayed for dramatic effect 
or as a change of direction in the narrative. 

Frame and subject size 

Fining the frame with the principal subject appears, at first sight, to be 
an efficient way of eliminating irrelevant detail. A close shot concen- 
trates the attention and avoids the complications of integrating other 
visual elements into a cohesive composition. The closer you get to the 
main subject, the easier it is for the viewer to understand the priorities 
of the shot and the quicker it is for the cameraman to find the opti- 
mum framing. The close shot is efficient in communication and often, 
because it only requires a small area to be designed and ht, economic 
in production. 

There have been many successful productions that stay close almost 
all the time. A series of close shots builds up tension and intensity, not 
only because of the claustrophobic impact of the tight images but also 
because of the absence of any visual information to assist the viewer in 
locating the action. Mystery and tension are enhanced if the audience 
is 'lost' and has no frame of reference for the events they are watching. 
The production style of one television series often involved starting 
tight on a new scene so that there was suspense and complexity for the 
audience in deciding where they were and what was happening. 
Sometimes the audience were released from their confusion by an 
'explanation' shot well into the scene, but often there was no visual 
description of the setting, how many people were involved and their 
physical relationship to each other. 

The composition of a close shot need not be devoid of location 
information. Because of the magnification of detail, a close shot may 
be quicker at estabhshing atmosphere and locaHty than a more general 
or vague wide shot. A generalization would be that a close shot inten- 
sifies the attention to detail - the viewer cannot easily overlook the 
visual information that is being presented. A wider shot may be used 
to show relationships, create atmosphere or express feeling but 
requires tighter design control of the composition to achieve these 
objectives. A wider area of view may have more visual elements, fight- 
ing, contrast, colour, etc., to integrate for visual unity, whereas a closer 
shot can be effective with very simple framing. 

FiU the frame if possible with interest and avoid large plain areas 
that are there simply because of the aspect ratio of the screen. If 
necessary, mask off part of the frame with a feature in the shot to 
give a more interesting composition and to emphasize the most im- 
portant element in the frame. 

Attracting or switching thie centre of interest 

Because film/TV is often concerned with movement, compositions 
have to accommodate changes in the position of the principal subject 
in the frame. Action can be staged to change who is the principal 
subject. Switching the viewer's attention to a new principal subject 

Visual design 81 

can be achieved by a number of methods. These include the position of 
subject in the frame, where the significant player is staged in the dom- 
inant position. Within a group he/she must be separated from the 
'crowd'. One method of separation from a background crowd can 
be achieved by a low camera height increasing the height of the fore- 
ground actor. 

Actor movement can control which is the principal subject of the 
composition. For example, there is a scene in John Ford's 'Stagecoach' 
(1939), of a number of people in a room. The stagecoach driver is 
standing and is the dominant subject by height and lighting. He 
moves into the shadows on the left of frame to leave the dominant 
position now to the actor seated at the head of the table. This type of 
actor 'choreography' is a frequent controller of composition without 
change of shot or camera movement. 

Creating a front surface design 

For an image to hold our attention, relationships within the frame 
must be constantly changing. This can be achieved by movement or 
sound (e.g., dialogue flip-flopping between actors). It can be achieved 
by skilful compositional elements that lead the eye around the frame 
finding new patterns or visual contrasts or it can be achieved by having 
an involving and agreeable front surface pattern. 

There is often an attempt to compensate for the loss of the third 
dimension in a film or television image by introducing a string of depth 
indicators that draws the eye into the picture. Space and the depiction 
of depth can provide visual interest but so can pattern. The screen on 
which the image is reproduced is a flat two-dimensional plane and, as 
we have seen with the structural skeleton of the shot and in abstract 
shots, the patterns that lay on the surface of the screen independent of 
the replication of depth can hold the attention because organization of 
shape, form and contrast are basic to the act of perception. 

A composition can create interest if it achieves the twin objectives of 
creating depth and also a front surface two-dimensional pattern. This 
pattern can be created by strong contrast of tone, shape, colour or 
texture that simplifies the image. An easy way of judging this quahty of 
the composition is through half-closed eyes, which can reveal the main 
compositional groupings and reduce the awareness of specific visual 

Only the content can determine which pattern can be created by 
balancing out colour, mass, direction, etc., and which aspect of visual 
design is to be chosen and subjected to the business of pictorial organ- 
ization. The function of visual design can be shown only by pointing 
out the meaning it helps to make visible. 

Creating mood or atmosphere 

As well as action and dialogue, framing and camera movement can 
contribute to establishing the mood or atmosphere of a scene. Static or 
a slow panning camera, combined with long horizontal hnes, soft 
fighting, slow moving or static actor staging can result in a quiet, 
calm, restful mood. This can be disrupted for narrative requirements 
by faster camera movement, faster cutting pace or more active actor 

82 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

movement. Speed or the excitement of action can be increased by 
jagged diagonal movement across the frame, whereas a skater or 
skier often has a smoother change of direction and camera movement 
needs to echo this fluid action. Instabihty, mystery or menace can be 
created by dramatic Hghting but also by wide-angle distortion of ver- 
ticals, rapid movement, canted camera angles and unexpected action 
from an unanticipated screen direction. 


The aim of a balanced composition is to integrate all the visual factors 
such as shape, colour and location so that no change seems possible. 
The image achieves unity as a result of all its essential elements. Visual 
design means actively using the available design elements in the shot 
such as grouping and organization, balance, figure and ground, shape, 
line, curves, pattern, etc., to emphasize and draw the observer's atten- 
tion to the main subject in the shot. 

A shot should feature one centre of interest and the viewer's atten- 
tion should always be attracted to the most significant portion of the 
scene. Even in a two or three shot, movement, dialogue, hghting or 
staging will direct attention to the dominant subject at that moment. 
Background action or setting should not overwhelm the foreground. 
Groups of subjects (e.g., a crowd, trees or houses) need a camera 
position and appropriate focal length lens in order to be organized 
into a cohesive shape unless the aim of the shot is to depict riots, 
battles or a catastrophe. Odd number of actors (e.g., three or five, 
etc.) are easier to group. 

In capturing attention, movement and sound take precedence over 
visual design. A moving object possesses more compositional impact 
than a stationary object. Regardless of size, a small moving, fight, 
bright object will grab greater attention than a large static object. 

In seeking to balance a composition, an object positioned on the 
edge of the frame wifi be stronger than in the centre. Movement 
towards or away from the camera is more active than across the 
frame. An isolated subject carries more weight than a group, particu- 
larly in the top part of the frame compared with the lower part. 

A generalization would be that a close shot intensifies the attention 
to detail - the viewer cannot easily overlook the visual information 
that is being presented. A wider shot may be used to show relation- 
ships, create atmosphere or express feehng but requires tighter design 
control of the composition to achieve these objectives. A wider area of 
view may have more visual elements, hghting, contrast, colour, etc., to 
integrate for visual unity, whereas a closer shot can be effective with 
very simple framing. 

If in doubt, choose a simple composition that is economical in 
the use of hne, form, mass and movement. The test of simplicity is 
that no item can be removed without destroying the balance of the 



Composition and the frame 

Figure 6.1 A single object will 
either be 'pulling' towards the 
centre or to the corners and/or 
edge of the frame. There are also 
positions of ambiguity where an 
observer cannot predict the 
potential motion of the object 

Composition can be controlled by the position of the lens and a variety 
of visual design techniques, but there is another 'invisible' force acting 
upon the design of a film or television image and how it is perceived. 
The enclosing frame of a picture exerts three powerful influences on a 

Firstly, the shape of the viewing screen, its aspect ratio (the propor- 
tion of its width to its height) has a significant influence on how a 
picture is to be composed. This is dealt with in the next chapter. 
Secondly, the spatial relationship between the main subject and the 
edge of the picture is critical. Lastly, how the frame contains the 
image, how it in effect limits and concentrates the observer's attention 
on the subject of the image. Looking through a small window from 
inside a house we can only see part of the surrounding neighbourhood. 
Standing in a greenhouse we have an unconstrained view of the envir- 
onment but without the guiding focus of the selective boundary of a 
frame. Framing up a shot is selecting and presenting a portion of the 
setting/subject for the attention of the audience. 

Frame - an invisible focus of power 

It is often difficult to assess the influence the border of a picture has on 
the main subject of the image. An experiment was devised to measure 
this effect using a number of individual observers. 

In a darkened room using a brightly ht border and positioning a 
white dot at various positions within this frame, perceptual psycholo- 
gists established that observers will unconsciously imply potential 
motion to a static object, the white dot, depending on its position 
within the frame. 

They will ascribe movement to a static object that will either be 
'pulling' towards the centre or to the corners and/or edge of the 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 


Figure 6.2 There Is a strong 
perceptual awareness of the 
invisible reference points of the 
frame, (a) If the camera is panned 
up, a point is reached, with a large 
amount of headroom, where the 
subject appears to be slipping out 
of the bottom of the frame, (b) 
Panning down to create a shot 
with no headroom produces the 
feeling that the subject is leaving 
through the top of the frame, (c) 
There is a point of equilibrium 
where the subject is balanced 
against the invisible forces of the 

frame, depending on its position relative to the edge of the frame. 
Based on the experience of a large number of individuals, a field of 
forces can be plotted (Figure 6.1), which shows the position of rest or 
balance (centre and mid-point on the diagonal between corner and 
centre) and positions of ambiguity where the observer cannot predict 
the potential motion of the object and therefore an element of percep- 
tual unease is created. Whether the object is passively attracted by 
centre or edge, or whether the object actively moved of its own voh- 
tion, depends on content. 

At the same moment that we look at an object within a frame, we 
are also aware (often unconsciously) of the spatial relationship 
between the object and the frame. 

This common experience of an awareness of motion of a static 
visual element with relation to the frame is an intrinsic part of percep- 
tion. It is not an intellectual judgement tacked on to the content of an 
image based on previous experience, but an integral part of perception. 
The edge of the frame and also the shape of the frame therefore have a 
strong influence on composition. 

The pattern of a photographic image is more than the relationship 
between size, shape, brightness diiferences and colour contrast of the 
visual elements, there is also a hidden structural pattern created by the 
frame. An image contains more than the visible elements that make up 
the shot and these 'unseen' aspects can exert a powerful influence on 
the composition. As we saw in the discussion on perspective, an obser- 
ver can be aware of the position of the vanishing point (within or 
outside of the frame) even if it is not self evidently indicated. 

These frame 'field' of forces exert pressure on the objects contained 
within the frame and any adjustment to the composition of a group of 
visual elements will be arranged with reference to these pressures. This 
strong perceptual awareness of the invisible reference points of the 
frame can be demonstrated by examining a simple medium close-up 
shot framed with normal headroom. If the camera is panned up, a 
point is reached, with a large amount of headroom, where the subject 
appears to be slipping out of the bottom of the frame. Panning down 
to create a shot with no headroom produces the feeling that the subject 
is leaving through the top of the frame (Figure 6.2(a)-(c)). 

Framing anything towards the corners gives the impression that the 
subject matter is slipping away from the dead centre reference point. 
Placing the subject dead centre of the frame resists or balances out the 
'pulhng effect' of the corners. By eliminating tension the resulting 
image lacks visual excitement because there is no visual stress within 
the frame. The subject is at such a condition of equihbrium that it 
lacks any visual energy (Figure 6.3(a)-(c)). 

A different placement of the subject within the frame's 'field of 
forces' can therefore induce a perceptual feeling of equihbrium, of 
motion or of ambiguity. 

Static viewpoint 

Human perception is unable to be as static and as continuously 
focused and attentive on a selected portion of a field of view as a 
camera. Attention, after a short period of time, will inevitably be 



Figure 6.3 (a) When the main 
subject is centre frame there is 
little or no tension set up between 
frame and subject, (b) Offsetting 
the subject to this degree 
suggests that the frame is ahead 
of the kite. There is a marked 
contrast between the space in the 
left of the frame and the kite. It is 
ambiguous visual communication 
as it could imply that either the 
kite is losing height or that it has 
unlimited space to climb, (c) 
Placing the subject too close to 
centre can also be ambiguous as 
it remains unclear whether the kite 
is moving to equilibrium or is 
being pulled towards one of the 
sides of the frame 

captured by movement or noise from subjects outside the selected zone 
of view. The camera can continue its static unbhnking gaze until 
altered by the cameraman. 

A hard cut-off 

There is no awareness of what hes outside the selected viewfinder 
image except by deduction based on content or previous shots. By 
selective editing, a completely fictitious environment can be suggested 
to lie outside the hard cut-off point of the frame. Human perception 
has the abiUty to focus on one section of its view whilst being aware of 
visual activity on the edge of the field of view. 

One of the early Hollywood conventions designed to hold and con- 
centrate the audience's attention on the subject of the shot was to 
compose the shot so that it contained the action within the frame 
and then, by cutting, followed the action in discrete, complete shots. 
Each shot was self-contained and referred only to what was seen and 
shut out or excluded anything outside of the frame. This is the closed 
frame technique and is structured in such a way as to keep the atten- 
tion only on the information that is presented. If there is any signific- 
ant reference to a subject outside of the frame, then there is a cut or a 
camera move to bring the referred subject into frame. This convention 
is still followed in many different programme formats. For example, in 
a television demonstration, the demonstrator in MCU may refer to 
some item that is outside the frame. Either the MCU is immediately 
loosened to reveal the object or there is a cutaway on another camera 
to a close-up of the object. 

The open frame convention allows action to move in and out of the 
frame. An example would be a character in a hallway who would be 
held on screen whilst in dialogue with someone who is moving into, 
and out of, frame whilst entering and leaving various rooms that are 
unseen. Their movement while they are out of frame is implied and not 
cut to as separate shots. The open frame does not disguise the fact that 
the shot is only a partial viewpoint of a much larger environment. This 
technique considers that it is not necessary for the audience to see the 
reahty beyond the shot in order to be convinced that it exists (Figure 
6.4(a), (b)). 

In the mid-nineteenth century the increased speed of film emulsion 
allowed faster exposure and the abihty to capture movement. 
Photographs of street scenes now became possible and often featured, 
by chance, people on the edge of frame either moving into or out 
of the shot. These snapshot 'chance' compositions, as we have 
mentioned, appealed to painters such as Degas (see Figure 10.3) 
who used the same convention of objects on the edge of frame to 
add to the dynamics of the composition (see Chapter 5) and as a 
pointer to the arbitrary nature of the placing of the frame, which 
excluded a greater reahty outside the frame. 

Some film directors, such as the Itahan Michelangelo Antonioni, 
have emphasized the arbitrary nature of the frame as a device that 
switches on pieces of 'reality' only when required, by holding the shot 
of a location when any significant action has ended. For example, the 
shot may continue of an empty room when the actors have exited to 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 6.4 (a) A closed frame 
contains all the relevant action, (b) 
An open frame requires the 
audience to assume what they 
cannot see - that there is a door 
and keyhole beyond the confines 
of the frame 

underline the continuing existence of the room independent of staged 
action or the demands of the narrative. 

The classic Hollywood narrative convention was to present only 
what was essential to advance the plot. Many European and other 
film makers have challenged this slavish adherence to an edited con- 
struction of film time and space, restricted to the strict requirements of 
a story. They moved away from the conventional limits imposed by 
Hollywood narrative continuity and inserted shots that had possibly 
no plot requirement but provided indicators of a world larger than the 
limitations imposed by the constraints of only following story require- 

Limited depth and perspective indicators 

The two-dimensional viewfinder image has limited depth indicators 
created by overlap of objects, change of size of objects moving to or 
away from the camera, mass, hne and aerial perspective. Human per- 
ception, with binocular vision, aUows depth and size judgements to be 
made by head and body movement. The perspective of the viewfinder 
picture can be entirely different from the impression of depth experi- 
enced by an observer beside the camera. 

The viewfinder image is a bright selected rectangle containing a 
portion of the field of view that is personal and specific to that camera 
position, lens and framing. No other individual at that location has the 
same visual experience as the viewfinder image unless they are sharing 
a video output from the camera. 


An electronic viewfinder wiU produce a monochrome image with a 
much smaller contrast range than that experienced by human sight. 
This tends to provide a much simpler image than the original, elim- 
inating colour contrasts and the emotional effect of colour and empha- 
sizing tone, mass and the perspective of fine. 

A stronger sense of pattern is usuaUy displayed by a two-dimen- 
sional viewfinder picture than is seen by human perception unless an 
individual has trained himself to 'see' as a camera does. 

The viewfinder image therefore helps in composing a picture 
because, to some extent, it accentuates certain compositional ele- 
ments. A well designed image has information included but also 
has information that has been excluded. The frame acts as a con- 
troller of attention by limiting what is to be in shot. The edge of the 
frame is a frontier checkpoint and the basic advice often given to 
trainee cameramen is to always check the edge of the frame for 
unnecessary detail. With a small viewfinder image it is not always 
easy to see 'border incidents' of items creeping into the frame and 
others shding out. When observing a large projected image or colour 
picture, these fringe visual activities are immediately obvious and 
distracting and shift the emphasis from the main subject of the 
shot (see colour plates 4 and 5). 



The edge of frame as a reference 

Because of the strong influence of the frame edges, they tend to act as 
an immediate reference point to horizontal and vertical lines in the 
image. The camera needs to be levelled to produce the horizon or 
equivalent lines parallel to the bottom of the frame and vertical lines 
paraUel to the side of the frame unless a canted picture is required 
(a Dutch tilt). If this does not happen, any camera movement will 
produce greater or lesser distortion of the vertical and horizontal 

As there is constant feedback in our biological make-up between the 
inner ear and eye to achieve balance and remain upright, a canted shot 
that displaces strong verticals can have a disturbing visual effect. Carol 
Reed in the 'Third Man' (1949), uses a sequence of canted shots of 
faces peering out of doorways and windows to create an atmosphere of 
suspicion and instability. This reflects the central character's uneasi- 
ness in his search through Vienna where he suspects that there are 
mysterious events beyond his knowledge. 

In one television series, all the flashback sequences were shot in 
monochrome and canted to provide a separate identity to the main 
narrative. The fight sequences in 'Batman' (1989) were canted not only 
to reflect the style of the original comic book illustrations but also to 
provide greater dynamics to the shot composition. 

Frames within frames 

Figure 6.5 Although the 
newsreader is well into the frame 
the background logo competes for 

The shape of the frame and the relationship of the subject to the edge 
of the frame have a considerable impact on the composition of a shot. 
Historically, in print photography, there have been two preferred 
aspect ratios - the landscape format, which has a predominantly hor- 
izontal shape, and the portrait format, which emphasizes the vertical 
aspect ratio. 

Film and television programmes usually stay with one aspect ratio 
for the whole production. There have been a few examples of multi- 
image films that either use a split screen of two, four or more separate 
images, whilst other productions have altered the shape of the screen 
according to content. 

One simple way of breaking up the repetition of the same projected 
shape and of adjusting the aspect ratio to suit the content is to create 
compositions that involve frames within frames. The simplest device is 
to frame a shot through a doorway or arch that emphasizes the 
enclosed view and plays down the enclosing frame and waU. 
Another popular convention is to include in the top of the frame of 
a wide shot a bit of 'dingle dangle' - a tree branch often supported out 
of vision by a gaUows arm or a similar structure. 

By using foreground masking, an irregular 'new' frame can be cre- 
ated that gives variety to the constant repetition of the screen shape. A 
frame within a frame breaks the monotony and also provides the 
opportunity for compositional diversity. The famihar over-the- 
shoulder two shot is, in effect, a frame within a frame image as the 
back of the foreground head is redundant information and is there to 
aUow greater attention to be focused on the speaker, and the curve of 

88 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

the head into the shoulder gives a more visually attractive shape to the 
side of the frame (see Figure 1.4). 

Often the object that is being used to create a secondary frame has 
some narrative connection with the subject of the shot. For example, 
the arm of a crane may be used to mask a wide shot of docks or the 
curve of the span of a bridge will frame a town or cityscape. 

A second frame 

A frame within a frame emphasizes the principal subject by enclosing 
it with a secondary frame and often gives added depth to the shot. 
There are a number of ways of creating a secondary frame including 
the use of semi-silhouette foreground objects, or windows or mirrors 
that divide the frame into a smaller rectangle. If this is badly done 
there is the risk of creating a divided frame with equal and competing 
areas of interest. Strong vertical and horizontal elements can create 
two images that are unconnected and provide no visual direction, thus 
allowing ambiguity in the viewer's mind as to which image is domin- 

The other compositional problem occurs with the relationship 
between the edge of frame and the frame-within-a-frame shape. If 
these are similar and the inside shape follows the frame line then 
there is simply a contraction of the screen size. Divided interest in a 
frame can be created by the overemphasis of visual elements that are 
not the principal subject or there may be indecision of what is the 
principal subject. 

The top of the doorway in 'The Big Combo' shot (see front cover) is 
angled to the frame of the shot by offsetting the camera position from 
a square-on position and by using a low lens height. This avoids the 
top and the sides of the entrance running parallel with the outside edge 
of the frame, which would simply reduce the size of the screen. If the 
camera position had been chosen to centre on the entrance, the top Une 
would run parallel to the top of frame and produce a less dynamic 
image. A sloping line across the frame produces a more active compo- 
sition when it is obviously at a different angle to the frame top. The 
low camera height and the distance of the actors from the lens creates 
size difference and depth. 

As always when offering compositional guidelines in film or televi- 
sion there are always exceptions that can be found. The end shot of 
John Ford's 'The Searchers' (1956) is a square-on shot of a doorway 
from the interior with an enclosing unlit frame so, in effect, the screen 
contracts down to the doorway through which one can see the familiar 
figure of John Wayne walking away from camera. 

Frame and divided interest 

The most common example of a frame within a frame creating a 
divided interest is the newsreader framed in one half of the shot, 
'balanced' by a logo or generic graphic enclosed in a 'window' in the 
other half The two images are usually not visually integrated and fight 
each other for attention. Often, the newsreader appears to be uncom- 

Frame 89 

fortably near one edge of the frame being pushed out by the dominant 
position of the graphic. 

It is almost impossible to achieve visual unity with a combination of 
presenter plus a strong graphic 'window' unless the presenter occupies 
at least three-quarters of the frame and can overlap the graphics win- 
dow. A fifty-fifty split in the frame is often seen in news bulletins 
reflecting journalistic preferences formed by experiences of text page 
newspaper layouts. 

Electronic graphics have a generous surround of 'non-action' area 
that is required because some domestic television sets are overscanned 
and the margins of the transmitted picture are not seen. Essential 
information such as text (name supers, telephone numbers, etc.) is 
automatically kept out of this border. Pictures derived from cameras 
have no such automatic control and can and do produce images that 
overlap the action area boundary. Consequently many factual pro- 
grammes allow electronic graphic material to push presenters off the 
screen or squeeze them to the edge of the frame in composite shots. 


At the same moment that we see an object within a frame, we are also 
aware of the relationship between the object and the frame. These 
frame 'field of forces' exert pressure on the objects contained within 
the frame and all adjustment to the composition of a group of visual 
elements will be arranged with reference to these pressures. Different 
placement of the subject within the frame's 'field of forces' can there- 
fore induce a feeling of equihbrium, of motion or of ambiguity. 

The closed frame technique is structured to keep the attention only 
on the information that is contained in the shot. The open frame 
convention allows action to move in and out of the frame and does 
not disguise the fact that the shot is only a partial viewpoint of a much 
larger environment. 

A stronger sense of pattern is usuaUy displayed by a two dimen- 
sional viewfinder picture than is seen by human perception unless an 
individual has trained himself to 'see' as a camera does. The viewfinder 
image therefore helps in composing a picture because, to some extent, 
it accentuates certain compositional elements. 

In general, when using frames within frames, the inside frame 
should be at an angle to avoid a cardboard cutout appearance or 
contracting the screen size. The inside frame should be in sharp 
focus and need not completely enclose the main subject of the shot. 
Partial frames, such as top of frame foHage or the classic over-the- 
shoulder framing, can be equally effective in breaking up the repetition 
of the main aspect ratio of the production. 

The shape of the screen 

Aspect ratio 





Figure 7.1 Film and TV aspect 
ratios include: (a) 2.35:1 - 35 mm 
anamorphic (Panavision/ 
Cinemascope); (b) 1.85:1 - 
widescreen film; (c) 1.78:1 (16:9) - 
video widescreen; (d) 1.69:1 - 
super 16 mm; (e) 1.33:1 (4:3) - 
Academy ratio and TV 

The ratio of the longest side of a rectangle to the shortest side is called 
the aspect ratio of that rectangle. The aspect ratio of a film or televi- 
sion frame and the relationship of the subject to the edge of frame has 
a considerable impact on the composition of a shot. Historically, film 
progressed from the Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (a 4:3 rectangle) to 
a mixture of CinemaScope and widescreen ratios. TV inherited the 4:3 
screen size and then, with the advent of digital production and recep- 
tion, some countries took the opportunity to convert to a TV wide- 
screen ratio of 1.78:1 (16:9). 

There is a striking similarity between the commercial considerations 
involved in the introduction of film widescreen in the 1950s and the 
national pohtics and commercial debate to estabhsh TV widescreen 
transmissions in the 1990s. It was hoped to increase cinema attendance 
by changing the shape of the film screen in the mid-twentieth century 
just as 50 years later it was hoped to sell more television sets by chan- 
ging its shape. In fact manufacturers were guaranteed to sell more 
digital widescreen sets if they could convince governments to switch 
of the existing 4:3 analogue sets and render them obsolete. This chap- 
ter discusses how film and TV images arrived at their present displayed 
aspect ratios and the influences that have changed these shapes over 

As weU as the production aspect ratio there is also the aspect ratio of 
the screen on which the image is displayed. If there is a mismatch 
between the aspect ratio of the original and that of the reproduced 
image, a number of problems arise. Considerations about the different 
shapes of display screens now and in the future and their effect on how 
the original composition of an image could be protected, are dealt with 
in Chapters 8 and 9. 

The shape of the screen 91 

The shape of the screen and composition 

The composition of a film or TV image can only be designed in rela- 
tion to an enclosing frame. As we discussed in the previous chapter, 
the enclosing frame has a significant influence on how we perceive a 
shot. Many images created in the past such as cave paintings, wall 
painting and frescoes had no frame, but film and TV images are 
watched on a display screen with a specific shape. That shape has 
been the subject of commercial, political and technological debate 
but seldom have the aesthetics of the shape been discussed. The 
shape of the screen is vitally important to directors and cameramen 
but their work is often mangled by the technology of delivery to an 
audience. Sometimes, in this development, the shape of the screen is 
either seen as a technical consideration or sometimes as a commercial 
requirement. What is often ignored is the incompatibility of the origi- 
nal creative decisions by the image makers for their images to be all 
things to all screens. 

Framing for a specific aspect ratio is an inherent part of a produc- 
tion's identity. Directors, cinematographers and cameramen should 
have the assurance that the aspect ratio of the presentation screen 
matches their original compositions. Both in the cinema and via the 
television screen, film and TV images are often subject to gross distor- 
tion for commercial considerations. There are a variety of film and TV 
aspect ratios and they are not compatible. Neither can they be made 
compatible by cropping the projector's aperture, panning and scan- 
ning, or shoot and protect production techniques. 

In 1952, when newsreel commentator Lowell Thomas introduced 
Cinerama images to a cinema audience, he suggested that pictures in 
the past had been restricted in space; that a painting is hemmed in by 
its frame. Cinerama breaks out the sides of the ordinary screen and 
presents very nearly the scope of normal vision and hearing. The 
primary intention of this widescreen innovation was to compete with 
the television small screen, one of the causes of falling cinema atten- 
dance, by offering a 'wrap around' image - a different visual experi- 
ence. The Cinerama image filled the spectator's field of view (at least 
towards the front of the cinema), and virtually eliminated the aware- 
ness of a horizontal border to the picture. After the brief success of 
Cinerama, films were produced in a variety of widescreen formats but 
faced increasing problems in projection and television showings. The 
edge of the screen came back as a major consideration when compos- 
ing an image. 

Viewfinder as an editing tool 

The viewfinder is selective - it excludes as well as includes visual 
material. The frame of a shot creates an 'enclosure', a fence that 
separates the image from its environment - a bright rectangle sur- 
rounded by blackness. To some extent (ignoring size) a film image is 
viewed in a darkened cinema in a similar condition as an optical view- 
finder on a camera. A video viewfinder image, however, is seen by the 
cameraman in very different conditions to the television viewer (see 
Figure 5.24). But both optical and electronic viewfinders display 

92 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

images that deviate in significant ways from our normal experience of 
perception. A viewfinder image lias a hard cut-off, a border that con- 
centrates the compositional elements of the shot. When viewing this 
small image magnified and projected on a large screen, certain com- 
positional elements lose their impact. How the image will be displayed 
- cinema or television screen - affects compositional decisions as well 
as the aspect ratio of the image frame. 

Could it have been different? 

There is nothing inevitable about technological development or inno- 
vation in film or television. Contemporary film aspect ratios and 
changing television aspect ratios are the result of vested interests, 
competing commercial requirements and economic competition 
between countries. In tracing the history of how the current situation 
was created what is often missing are accounts of decisions that could 
have been taken and the reasons why they were not taken. 

There is a story of a three-hour hospital management meeting that 
discussed details of the structure and organization of a hospital with- 
out ever mentioning the patient. The development of widescreen in 
television is very similar. For nearly 20 years there have been endless 
technical discussion groups and committees about new forms of tele- 
vision but httle or no mention of the needs of the viewer. The viewer is 
probably very happy with their 4:3 analogue set and have no wish to 
buy new and expensive equipment. It is the content they are interested 
in, not the hardware. In the words of a prominent television executive: 

Widescreen has proven to be an important element in attracting the public to 
digital services, as it is a very visible differentiating factor for simulcast services 
that might otherwise be regarded as merely 'more of the same'. The 16:9 
format is seen as a particularly important feature of the digitally simulcast 
traditional analogue terrestrial services. It provides a highly visible new ele- 
ment in a world dominated by multiplicity of channels. It also provides a 'fresh 
look' to go with the new services. 

A 'fresh look' to re-brand an old product is, in this case, to change 
the shape of the screen. In unravelhng the history of any decision 
making it is easier to identify the decisions that were made, rather 
than the ideas that failed to be taken up or were simply not reported. 
It is the views and opinions that were never adopted that are the most 
difficult to trace but they are the ones that could have shaped an 
alternative present. The current mixture of aspects ratios is neither 
inevitable nor a logical progression to near perfection. It is simply 
the end result of a series of commercial pressures. 

Tlie invention of a world format standard 

Throughout the economic and political arguments over a proposed 
international video format, one standard format has remained rela- 
tively unchanged for over 100 years. 35 mm film has remained a uni- 
versal standard in the cinema and television and, before sound was 
introduced in the late 1920s, any 35 mm print could be shown and 

The shape of the screen 93 

understood in any cinema tlirougliout tlie world. How a 35 mm film 
frame became the standard appears to rely on the work of one man 
who was in fact looking, in the late 1890s, for a convenient film strip 
for Edison's Kinetoscope (peepshow). 

In 1889 (Edison and Dickson may have created an earlier date for 
their inventions in order to support their patents), W.K.L. Dickson, 
Edison's assistant, an engineer, was searching for a film strip that 
provided an image of sufficient quality at minimal cost (Belton, 1992). 
Dickson was an amateur photographer and he had to decide between 
the traditional vertical portrait format and the horizontal format of 
landscape used in painting and photography at that time. He settled 
on a negative image, 1 inch wide and | inch high. He arrived at this 
frame because Eastman mass-produced film strips of 70 mm and 
90 mm gauge. Dickson sht the 70 mm strip into two 35 mm widths 
and then had to decide on the frame size. Some still cameras at this 
time produced circular images. Dickson rejected this shape and, after 
perforations were punched in the film, he had an image width of 
1 inch. To match the 1-inch horizontal frame he could have chosen 
a frame height of 1 inch, which would have resulted in a square frame. 
Instead he decided on a |-inch frame height to maximize the number of 
frames in the 50-foot strips of film he was using. This negative frame 
size provided sufiicient quahty of image for the peepshow. 

The golden rectangle was greatly admired by mathematicians and 
engineers such as Dickson (but not necessarily by artists - see misun- 
derstandings about the golden rectangle below) and the 1.33:1 dimen- 
sions of a 1 inch x |-inch frame size he chose was close to the 1.618:1 
of the golden rectangle. The 4:3 shape was also a compromise shape 
between the portrait and landscape formats used in still photography. 
With shght modifications, Dickson's design lasted for over 60 years in 
the cinema and up to the present day in television film production. 

The early days of film production were enmeshed in contested 
patents and legal challenges to infringements of patents. One method 
of circumventing Edison's patent was to film using a non-standard 
aspect ratio. This involved not only widescreen film apertures but 
also the ability to project in widescreen. Alternative widescreen aspect 
ratios died out by the 1910s, probably because cinemas could not 
economically handle different aspect ratio formats. 

Widescreen appeared again with Abel Gance's three-screen produc- 
tion of 'Napoleon' (1927) and the development by Henri Chretien of 
his 'anamorphoser' lens, which not only allowed widescreen but also 
'tall' screen as well (2.66:1 widescreen and 1:2.66 tall screen). In the 
quest to attract audiences, larger cinemas were built, which in turn 
required larger screens. Some of these cinemas could seat 3000-6000 
people, but most of this extended audience was viewing a smaller 
image. There was a demand for a larger negative size but there was 
no agreement between studios on a standard width and they experi- 
mented with film gauges of 50 mm, 65 mm and 70 mm, although an 
aspect ratio of 2:1 was commonly favoured. 

Widescreen film gauge may have eventually been agreed during the 
late 1920s if the experiment had not coincided with the advent of 
sound in 1926-1927, which required expensive re-equipping of film 
studios and cinemas. 

Sound forced a reduction in the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio into a 
nearly square shape of 1.15:1 to accommodate the 2 mm sound track. 

94 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Because the cost of re-equipping witli sound and a new shape screen, 
many cinemas carried on projecting the new 'squarer' shape on their 
old 4:3 screens. Heads and feet were cropped in the mismatch of the 
two aspect ratios. The Academy of Motion Pictures in 1932 agreed to 
a modified 4:3 shape to accommodate the sound track but the smaller 
frame took up 36 per cent less negative. Although cinemas could use 
their old screen and sHghtly magnify the projected image, it did result 
in a shghtly lower quality image. Cameras were fitted with the new 
1.37:1 aspect ratio masks. It is still customary for cameramen to talk 
about Academy Ratio of 1.33:1 when they really mean 1.37:1. It prob- 
ably occurs in this book as well! 

Widescreen returns 

Cinema-going in the USA fell from an average weekly attendance of 
90 milhon in 1948, to an average of 60 million in 1950 and down to 
18 milhon by 1972. The collapse of the cinema-going habit was the 
result of a number of social changes. In the post-war years the 
American population became more affluent and developed the taste, 
time and money for more active recreation. The studios had always 
relied on mass urban audiences. People now had the money and the 
ambition to move out to the suburbs and, although drive-in cinemas 
were a cheap and convenient way to reconnect with this relocated 
audience, film entertainment was a passive activity provided for the 
audience whereas many of them wanted recreation in their leisure time 
that allowed them to participate. 

Studios saw television as its principal competitor. They believed that 
with a greater emphasis centred on the suburban home, television kept 
people away from the cinemas. They decided to fight back by offering 
a widescreen image and surround-sound experience that attempted to 
completely involve the audience in the film. 

During the twentieth century, large screen displays had occurred in 
expositions, amusement parks and exhibitions. Cinerama was devel- 
oped by Fred Waller away from the film industry and shot on three 
ganged cameras each covering 48° of the field of view, making up a 
composite image of 146° horizontal by 55° vertical. This closely 
approached human vision of 165° x 60°. 

Because of Cinerama's enormous curved screen, stereo sound and 
an aspect ratio of 2.77:1, many of the audience were less aware, if 
aware at aU, of the edge of the horizontal frame, unhke their normal 
visual experience of the standard Academy ratio movie. Most of the 
Cinerama audience was seated so that the screen filled their field of 
view. Human vision uses a series of small eye motions called saccadic 
eye movement to scan 5-35° of their field of view. The Cinerama 
screen, covering 146°, meant the audience's visual attention was scat- 
tered across the screen. This duplicated the experience in reality of 
scanning across a panoramic view. Unlike the Academy ratio movie, 
the audience's attention (unless you were sitting in the front seats), 
was not focused on a single framed image. Cinerama, and later 
CinemaScope, attempted to reduce or eliminate the audience's aware- 
ness of the horizontal screen border in the cinema. 

The shape of the screen 95 

The advertising for Cinerama suggested tiiat tlie audience was 
drawn into tlie film and liad tlie pliysical experience of wliatever 
motion was depicted. Tlie emphasis of the film was on movement, 
not story. The audience did not watch the screen, they participated 
in a roller coaster ride. It was not something they saw but something 
they did. Avoiding any strong plot or stars, the film was an extended 
travelogue with sequences of Niagara Falls, a gondolier ride in Venice, 
etc. Waller suggested it was the large curved screen duplicating per- 
ipheral vision that enhanced the visual experience. 

Cinerama had a number of limitations compared with the standard 
'flat' screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. 'Flat' was used to diiferentiate 
between the curved cinema screen of Cinerama and the flat screen of 
standard aspect ratio. The joins between the three screens were difficult 
to hide and required special compositional arrangements when shoot- 
ing. The seams, once disguised in shooting, also precluded tracking, 
panning or tilting. Flat fighting had to be used to balance out the 
enormous width of screen and the three separate images, and the 
film cameras were fitted with 28 mm lenses, which made normal cam- 
erawork technique of close-ups, etc., impossible. In essence. Cinerama 
was a fairground entertainment and not part of the HoUywood stan- 
dard movie of star and story. The technology was the hero and 
appeared to be only suitable for travelogues and spectacle. And yet 
it had an enormous impact on the limited audience that saw it and the 
major studios recognized its crowd-pulling appeal. Cinerama opened 
at the Broadway Theatre, New York on 30 September 1952 and 
played, on its opening run, for 122 weeks. 

1953 was the crucial year for the studios looking for a similar wide- 
screen format as Cinerama but without its technical imperfections. 
Twentieth-Century Fox made it a top priority and agreed with 
Henry Chretien to use his Hypergona lens. He was surprised they 
needed to make any agreement with him as it was out of patent in 
1951 and the design was in the public domain. But Twentieth-Century 
Fox was in a hurry to get a film into production and could not wait for 
new (and subsequently better) lenses to be designed and built. 
CinemaScope started with an aspect ratio of 2.66:1 (later 2.55:1) pro- 
jected onto a slightly curved screen with four-track magnetic sound. It 
was advertised as three-dimensional to distinguish it from the older 4:3 
'flat' screen movies, but its illusion of depth was only achieved by a 
larger screen. True three-dimensional (use bi-coloured spectacles) only 
had a commercial fife of one year. Twentieth-Century Fox research 
engineers redesigned the 35 mm frame to have smaller sprocket holes 
to carry two, two-track magnetic strips either edge of the film, posi- 
tioned outside the sprocket holes, which aUowed a shghtly larger 
negative area for the picture. 

Twentieth-Century Fox attempted to make this the standard wide- 
screen format and pressurized other studios and cinema owners to 
convert to this gauge. Every major studio wanted a widescreen format 
to duplicate the Cinerama 'experience'. Eventually, after initial rivalry 
and hagghng. United Artists, MGM, Columbia, Warners and Disney 
signed up to make films in CinemaScope. Paramount held out and 
launched VistaVision, an eight sprocket hole, two frame negative 
image rotated 90° but reduced to a 35 mm projected print in a variety 
of aspect ratios varying from 2:1, 1.85:1 to 1.33:1. Paramount had a 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 7.2 (a) The full 2:1 ratio 
frame; (b) the compressed 4:3 

secondary format argument and claimed that height was as important 
as width of screen. 

Before they were allowed to show CinemaScope, Twentieth-Century 
Fox required cinemas to re-equip with new projectors, a new screen 
(their patented Magic Mirror screen for a brighter image), and a com- 
plex magnetic track stereo sound system. Most cinema owners ignored 
the sound requirements and although Twentieth-Century Fox pro- 
vided various prints to accommodate monaural, optical stereo sys- 
tems, they finally capitulated and in 1956 they reverted to standard 
sprocket holes and an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The release print had a 
combined magnetic and optical sound track. 

CinemaScope was developed in ten months. New Bausch & Lomb 
CinemaScope lenses in 1954 allowed the anamorphic attachment to be 
combined with the objective lens to make focusing easier and con- 

Other widescreen formats followed, including CinemaScope 55 
shooting on 56.625 mm negative but projected using 35 mm prints. 
Although it was sharper on the large screens the audience was not 
generally aware of the difference. CinemaScope as a format finished 
at Fox in 1967. 

In order to reduce anamorphic camera distortion, Panavision was 
created using a pair of prisms that could be moved in relation to each 
other to alter the anamorphic horizontal expansion factor. Cinema 
projectionists could adjust to accommodate any film with compression 
squeeze ratios from x 1.1 to x 2. 

Todd AO arrived in the mid- to late 1950s and used 65 mm negative 
to film and 70 mm prints (to accommodate sound tracks). This process 
allowed four lenses to be used - 128, 64, 48, 37° so that standard 
storytelling technique could be employed through a range of shot 
size and camera movement. Other widescreen processes such as 
MGM Camera 65, Super Panavision 70 mm. Super Technirama 70 
meant that many cinemas re-equipped to project 70 mm film. 70 mm 
film became synonymous with image quality even when, to save pro- 
duction costs, some producers used 35 mm to shoot and then print up 
to 70 mm for release. 

Widescreen film aspect ratios still remain a mixture of sizes but the 
most common are Academy Flat (1.85:1) and Anamorphic Scope 
(2.35:1). 1.66:1 and 2.20:1 (70 mm) ratios are also used (see Figure 
7.1). Composition is often planned, when shooting, so that the release 
print can be accommodated on different aspect ratio display screens 
without seriously compromising information or the integrity of the 
image (see Chapters 8 and 9). 

Design of the TV aspect ratio 

The factors that influence the aspect ratio of television, such as resolu- 
tion, line structure and bandwidth, share certain similarities to film in 
the debate about negative frame size, release print and the size of 
projected image. 

Most video images are eventually displayed on a television screen. 
The quahty of the screen, how it has been aligned and adjusted, any 
reflections or ambient light on the surface of the screen, the size of the 

The shape of the screen 97 

screen and the distance at which it is viewed will all aifect the quality of 
the image as seen by the viewer. Some compensation can be built into 
the video signal to mitigate receiver limitations but other factors affect- 
ing viewing conditions are outside the control of the programme 

Unlike film, where the projected image consists of light reflected 
from a screen, a television tube emits light. The maximum white it 
can emit is dependent on its design and how the display has been 
adjusted. Black is displayed when there is an absence of any signal 
but, even when the set is switched off", there is never a true black. The 
glass front surface of the tube, acting like a mirror, will reflect any 
images or light falhng on the screen, degrading 'black'. These two 
aspects of the display, its maximum high intensity white and how 
much ambient light is reflected from its screen, set the contrast 
range that the display will reproduce independent of its received signal. 

The size of the display screen and its viewing distance wiU be one 
factor in how much detail is discernible in a televised image. Because 
of the regulation of television transmissions, the design of the system 
(e.g., number of Hnes, interlace, etc.) and the permitted bandwidth will 
affect the detail (sharpness) of the broadcast picture. Bandwidth will 
determine how much fine detail can be transmitted. 

In those countries with a 50 Hz power supply using PAL 625 ana- 
logue colour system, the active number of lines (visible on screen) in a 
4:3 picture is 575. However, a subject televised that alternated between 
black and white, 575 times in the vertical direction would not neces- 
sarily coincide with the fine structure and therefore this detail would 
not be resolved. The limit of resolution that can be achieved is deduced 
by applying the Kell factor, which for the above example is typically 
0.7. This results in a practical resolution of 400 Unes/picture height. 
The horizontal resolution will be 4/3 of 400, equalhng 533. The 
number of cycles of information/line equals 533/2, resulting in 266.5, 
taking place in 52 |^S (time taken per line). This results in a band- 
width requirement of 266.5/52 |.iS - approximately 5.2 MHz for 625 
4:3 picture transmission. 

5.2 MHz bandwidth will be required for each channel broadcast 
using PAL 625, 4:3 picture origination. Other systems will have dif- 
ferent bandwidth requirements, such as 1250 HDTV PAL, which has 
twice the resolution and needs 30 MHz. Digital transmission allows 
some bandwidth reduction using compression. 

The basis of these electronic parameters were designed in the 1920s 
and the early 1930s. A number of different methods of creating an 
electronic picture could have been developed but, like Dickinson 
deciding on the aspect ratio of the first 35 mm film frame, research 
engineers such as Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin in the 
USA and Blumlein & McGee in England, devised a television signal 
that varied in detail but was similar in principle. 

On 2 November 1936 the British Broadcasting Corporation started 
the first television service alternating between the 240 fine Baird system 
and the 405 line Marconi/EMI system. In February 1937 the Baird 
transmissions were discontinued. Circular faced cathode ray tubes 
were used as television display screens and it was felt the maximum 
area of the tube face could be used if the aspect ratio of the television 
image was 5:4. On 3 April 1950, the BBC changed the screen shape to 
a 4:3 image, which coincided with the Academy film ratio. It was ironic 

98 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

that this shared film and television standard aspect ratio would only 
last three years before CinemaScope was launched in 1953 with an 
aspect ratio of 2.66:1. It would be nearly 50 years before television 
changed its screen shape to 16:9 widescreen. 


The first developmental work on a high definition television system 
began in 1968 at the technical research laboratories of Nippon Hoso 
Kyokai (NHK) in Tokyo. Dr Takashi Fujio at the NHK research 
laboratories carried out research on viewers' preference for screen 
size and aspect ratio and his findings largely formed the justification 
for the NHK HDTV parameters. The research suggests that the 
majority of viewers preferred a wider aspect ratio than 4:3, plus a 
larger screen with a corresponding increase in resolution, brightness 
and colour rendition. His conclusion was that maximum involvement 
by the viewer was achieved with a 5:3 picture aspect ratio viewed at 3-4 
picture height distance. Normal viewing distance (in Japan) was 2- 
2.5 m, which suggested an ideal screen size of between 1 m x 60 cm 
and 1.5 m X 90 cm. With bigger average room dimensions in the USA 
and Europe, even larger screen sizes may be desirable. Sitting closer to a 
smaller screen did not involve the viewer in the action in the same way. 
High quahty stereo sound increased viewer involvement. 

By 1980, when the NHK system of a 60 Hz field rate and 1125 fines 
picture was publicly demonstrated, all the necessary production and 
domestic equipment was available. There was widespread support for 
a single worldwide standard for HDTV service. The International 
Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR) supported a 60 Hz-field rate 
but this was incompatible with the PAL/SECAM field rate of 50 Hz 
and the NTSC 59.94 Hz. The NHK choice of 1125 hnes was chosen 
after the calculation that the midpoint between 525 and 625 lines is 575 
lines. Twice that number corresponds to 1150 hnes, but this even 
number of hnes could not produce the alternate line interlacing 
thought to be essential in any scanning standard. The nearest odd 
number having a common factor with 525 and 625 was the NHK 
choice: 1125 lines. The common factor 25 would make line-rate trans- 
coding NHK HDTV, NTSC and PAL/SECAM systems compara- 
tively simple. 

On 3 June 1989, NHK inaugurated a regular HDTV programme 
transmission by satelhte for about an hour each day. In the USA, the 
1125/60 format was proposed by the Society of Motion Picture and 
Television Engineers (SMPTE) for adoption as an American National 
Standard. After many objections, the standard was rejected because it 
would be difficult to convert to the NTSC system. The same objections 
were made in PAL countries. A more significant reason was the con- 
cern that a world standard originated by NHK would lead to Japanese 
manufacturers dominating world equipment supplies and it would 
require a completely separate HDTV production and reception ser- 
vice. At an international standards meeting in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, 
in May 1986 the conference voted to delay a decision until 1990. 

Throughout the following years the commercial considerations were 
intertwined with the technological implications of two frame rates. 

The shape of the screen 99 

Also, it was foreseen that the existing analogue services would be 
replaced by digital transmission. All parties wanted to protect their 
own broadcasting industry and their domestic TV services. There were 
two competing concepts of the future of television. The USA wanted 
to phase in HDTV alongside its existing NTSC system. It wanted the 
same compatibihty that had been achieved with the introduction of 
colour. The viewer could choose at what time they paid for HDTV. It 
would be available to all. 

The Europeans, after developing a 50 Hz HDTV system, decided to 
jettison the use of the larger bandwidths necessary for HDTV and, 
instead, introduce a multi-channel, digital, widescreen service. The 
viewer would have more choice of channels, a widescreen, but there 
would be no high definition system. 

The need for a universal video format 

Broadcasting is a massive industry worldwide. As well as the manu- 
facture and sales of production and domestic television equipment, 
video programme exchange and using video in film post-production 
play a significant part in world trade. 35 mm and 16 mm film can be 
shown in nearly every country in the world. The three major analogue/ 
digital TV systems require conversion before the exchange of pro- 
grammes. Dual-format post-production (525/625) is commonplace 
for international distribution but, when agreement broke down to 
provide an international standard HDTV, there was still the search 
for a video format of suificient quahty that would be invisible when 
transferring film to video or to any format required. 

With the transition from analogue to digital and the introduction of 
new television formats, as well as duplicating and designing very com- 
plex technical systems to accommodate all of the required standards, 
the post-production portion of programme generation would inevita- 
bly increase. 

There was a need for a single originating video format that could be 
easily converted to all other formats with the minimum of degrada- 
tion. A 1080 fine, progressive scan picture with a frame rate of 60 Hz 
(1080P/24) is the most hkely format to be adopted as a world produc- 
tion standard. This will not be transmitted but will be the 'master' 
originating format. 

16:9 television widescreen 

After 30 years of worldwide research, international debate, arguments 
and proposals for high definition television, improved definition tele- 
vision (IDTV) systems, conventional systems modified to offer 
improved vertical and/or horizontal definition known as advanced 
television (ATV) or enhanced definition television (EDTV) systems, 
the one common characteristic that survived in the changeover from 
an analogue to a digital television service in Europe is the widescreen 
aspect ratio of 16:9. Why was this single (non-technical) factor 

100 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Since the early 1970s when NHK (the Japan Broadcasting 
Corporation) first began research into a high definition television sys- 
tem, there has been a prolonged and often heated debate about what 
constitutes the ideal aspect ratio for television. These arguments often 
repeated the same concerns and advantages expressed in the earlier 
film industry controversies when widescreen aspect ratios were intro- 

Although there were numerous technical committees and meetings 
on the technology of the 'new' television system, the shape of the 
screen was usually assumed to need no discussion. Although research 
carried out by Dr Takashi at NDK established that most viewers 
preferred a 5:3 (15:9) shape, endorsed in March 1984 by the 
Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) in the USA, very 
few people challenged the orthodoxy of the 16:9 shape - except the 230 
members of The American Society of Cinematographers. In 1993, an 
ad hoc committee of the society studied the various HDTV proposals 
from a creative perspective (a rare event in the 30-year history of TV 
transition). They felt that either recomposing or letterboxing 35 mm 
anamorphic (2.35:1) or unsqueezed 70 mm format (2.2:1) film would 
require unacceptable artistic compromises. ASC president Victor 
Kemper commented: 'There is a rich artistic heritage of some 
40 years of widescreen Hollywood films, which would be compromised 
with a 16:9 or 1.78:1 aspect ratio.' ASC felt that 2:1 was an acceptable 
compromise between artistic purity and commercial realism. 

Despite their collective prestige, they had httle influence in 
Washington, DC, against the economic lobbying power of manufac- 
turers who, after ten years of research and development had a vested 
interest in maintaining the HDTV status quo. To them, the 16:9 aspect 
ratio was an irrevocable fact. 

The supporters of 16:9 were in the majority and their reasons for 
changing the television screen shape to this aspect ratio usually centred 
on five basic points: 

1. the shape is more 'natural' because human vision sees more 
horizontally than vertically; 

2. 16:9 is a reasonable compromise between competing aspect ratios 
and can accommodate film widescreen productions easier. It is 
therefore more efficient to have a universal screen shape for film 
and TV; 

3. any problems that arise with the changeover to widescreen TV are 
'interim' problems that wiU eventually be resolved when 16:9 
reception is universally adopted; 

4. the 16:9 rectangle is close to the golden ratio, which has been the 
preferred shape of artists for centuries. The divine proportion has 
been traditionally accepted as the perfect shape; 

5. the fierce debate and unwillingness to agree to a universal TV 
format indicates the fifth pressure to change. There was a huge 
economic incentive to re-brand and make obsolete a worldwide 

16:9 aspect ratio is closer to human vision 

Television widescreen enthusiasts usually suggest that the wider for- 
mat is more closely akin to the human perceptual experience. As we 

The shape of the screen 101 

have discussed, the eye focuses on a very small segment of the total 
field of view, such that the smallest detail of interest in the scene 
subtends an angle of about one minute (1/60°) of arc, which is the 
limit of angular discrimination for normal vision. The eye jerks 
quickly from one point of interest to another in what are termed 
saccade patterns. The eye must constantly move in order to perceive 
an object of any size. To enhance the experience of increased depth or 
'reahsm' with a two-dimensional image. Cinerama demonstrated that 
a very large curved screen is required in order to provide the experi- 
ence of peripheral vision. With peripheral vision there is an awareness 
of peripheral movement but no real information is collected. It is 
unlikely that a domestic television screen large enough to provide 
the Cinerama or CinemaScope 'wraparound' visual experience 
would be economically viable or desired. Average television viewing 
involves watching a screen that is a very small part of the field of 
view. Whatever the shape of the screen, it cannot duplicate the experi- 
ence of peripheral vision. Human perception relies on short saccadic 
eye movements. Television production units and viewers may prefer 
the wider screen television but it has httle or nothing to do with human 
visual perception or an enhanced experience of increased depth. 

A reasonable compromise between competing 
aspect ratios 

One of the considerations for changing the television screen shape was 
the need to accommodate the showing of widescreen films. During the 
last 40 years, virtually all movies made for the cinema were wide- 
screen. Pan and scan and letterboxing are discussed in Chapters 8 
and 9, respectively - it was the need to address the problem of simul- 
casting different aspect ratios on television that led to a compromise 
aspect ratio of 16:9 being proposed. In addition, television programme 
makers wanted to originate their productions in one aspect ratio (16:9) 
that, after compositional precautions, would be suitable for existing 
4:3 viewers. Dr Kerns Powers made the initial recommendation for a 
16:9 aspect ratio within the Society of Motion Picture and Television 
Engineers (SMPTE). 

An engineer who suggested that the ASC were too late with their 
recommendations for a 2:1 ratio and that 16:9 faUs nearly exactly in 
the middle between 1.66:1 and the 1.85:1 aspect ratio met with the 

The logic of picking something right in the middle between 1.66 and 1.85 may 
make sense from a mathematical standpoint, and carry international goodwill, 
but ... in the real world . . . It's like saying that if you want to build kitchen 
appHances and sell them in the US and UK, you should build them to run on 
165 volts, because that's halfway between 110 and 220. 

(Sgt Joe Beats, a pen name) 

But Dr Kerns Powers points to additional features of the 16:9 aspect 

Other than the universal 'shoot-and-protect' feature, there are additional 
potential advantages of this choice. The rounding up to 16:9 permits some 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

interesting polyscreen displays in consumer TV sets equipped with 16:9 picture 
tubes, but displaying 4:3 images. A possibility for film production would be to 
capture images on 3-perf 35 mm film at a full-frame aspect ratio of 1.78, using 
the above shoot-and-protect method, thereby saving some cost in raw film 
stock during shooting and editing. 3-perf film has been discussed in combina- 
tion with 30 frame-per-second shooting as a method of balancing the 25 per 
cent increase in cost of the film stock from the higher frame rate. Finally, the 
16:9 aspect ratio would be appropriate to a new proposed Scope format with 
1.5:1 anamorphic lenses, leading to possibly higher brightness and lower-grain 
presentation. Scope's on-film aspect ratio would be retained. 

Figure 7.3 

The divine proportion 

The golden section, golden ratio or divine proportion is called by a 
number of different names but all refer to the number achieved when 
dividing a line so that the ratio of the whole line (a) to the largest 
section of the hne (b) is equal to the ratio of the larger piece to the 
smaller piece (c). 

Figure 7.4 The front face of the 
Parthenon, Athens, with the 
golden section ratios proposed by 
numerical mystics. Although it is 
quite likely that the Greeks used 
the 'divine' proportion it is very 
difficult to provide accurate 
measurements to substantiate 
some of the golden section claims 

The divine proportion is when the value of (a) divided by (b) equals 
1.61803 and the value of (b) divided by (c) equals 1.61803. If a 
rectangle is constructed that has the ratio of the longest side to the 
shortest side of 1.61803:1, it is called a golden rectangle. 

The proportion to achieve this condition is 1.61803. A rectangle 
can be constructed that foUows this ratio with its sides 14.5623:9. A 
rectangle with such properties is dubbed the golden rectangle. 

This proportion has fascinated mathematicians for many centuries. 
From it can be constructed a nest of rectangles, all with the same 
ratios, spirals, and pentagons and pentagrams. The conclusion by 
some people is that a ratio that has so many symmetrical relationships 
must have a universal significance. 

How the golden rectangle was used in antiquity 

Many people following this numerical mysticism have sought to reveal 
this proportion in structures such as the pyramids and the Parthenon 
in Athens. The difficulty of measuring a building, such as the 
Parthenon, which has been eroded or has fallen into ruin with no 
clear indication of what the precise original lengths were, undermines 
the accuracy of this type of 'proof. The ancient Greeks did use the 
ratio as a building module not because they thought it had outstanding 
aesthetic attraction - the most pleasing shape known to man, as some 
advocate - but because it was a useful theory of design. The concept of 
it as a pleasing or beautiful shape only originated in the late 1 800s and 
does not seem to have any written texts (ancient Greek, Egyptian or 
Babylonian) supporting this claim. 

Another popular example by a golden ratio enthusiast is the work of 
Leonardo da Vinci, particularly the drawing of the head of an old 
man. By superimposing rectangles over this profile it is relatively sim- 

The shape of the screen 103 

pie to achieve 'proof of the existence of golden ratios by varying the 
thickness of the line and choosing on which points of the drawing to 
centre the rectangles. Most descriptions of Leonardo's hfe and work 
give no indication that he used the golden rectangle. 

Gustav Fechner in the 1860s claimed that the preferred choice of 
most people was the golden rectangle. His conclusion was arrived at by 
offering participants ten different rectangle shapes. When 48 rectangles 
were used in a similar experiment in the twentieth century, many 
people could see Httle or no difference with ratios close to the golden 

Another popular myth about the golden rectangle concerns the pro- 
portions of the human body. This suggests that the ratio of a person's 
height to the height of their navel conforms to the divine proportion. 
The height of a person's navel is an imprecise measurement that allows 
the maths to work if numerical mysticism requires it to. 

Engineers still have a fascination with the mathematical flexibihty of 
the ratio. It has been suggested that it influenced W.K.L. Dickson in 
his choice of the 4:3 film aspect ratio that he designed in the 1890s, and 
the golden rectangle is still advanced in support of the 16:9 widescreen, 
even though 1.777:1 is not the 1.61803:1 of the golden ratio and is not 
the preferred 'most pleasing shape' of the average viewer. 

Widescreen - the shape of a banknote 

The findings discovered by the research carried out by Dr Takashi 
Fujio at the NHK on viewer's preference for screen size and aspect 
ratio have never been properly implemented in the USA or Europe. 
His findings did, however, give a quasi-scientific justification for a 
completely new television service. They provided a pretext for the mas- 
sive re-equipping for production and reception required for the sepa- 
rate HDTV service set up in Japan. If a manufacturer is to persuade the 
consumer that his old TV set is redundant, the new replacement model 
has to be significantly different from 'yesterday's' model. CinemaScope 
55, shooting on 56.625 negative but projected using 35 mm prints, was 
sharper on the larger cinema screens but the audiences were largely 
unaware of the difference and the format was withdrawn. 

The changeover to the 16:9 format in European television has been 
extensively used to market the new digital services. In Europe, NHK 
research into HDTV has gradually been usurped by 16:9 digital broad- 
casting. The quest for high definition has gradually been eroded by 
market forces to end up with a 16:9 digital system, which is a muddle 
of diiferent aspect ratios that provide lower definition (often less fines 
than are available) distortion of the image (viewer choice of aspect 
ratio to fill the screen) and, because of the greed for maximum chan- 
nels, sometimes excessive digital compression that causes blocking of 
the digital image. How have we ended up with a worse system than the 
4:3 analogue system it sought to replace? 

The disturbing element in this aspect ratio debate is that frequently 
the technical quality and economic viability is argued in detail whereas 
the knock-on eifects of cropping and compositional distortions are con- 
sidered a side issue. The justification of widescreen in the first place was 
that it was closer to human vision, it was a reasonable compromise 

104 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

between worldwide competing formats, it was close to the 'most pleas- 
ing shape' preferred by most people, and it was able to engage the 
audience. Most of these arguments are tenuous, if not untrue. 

We are moving to a universal 16:9 shape (but stiU without a uni- 
versal format for the exchange of programmes) not because of aes- 
thetic, technological or even compeUing physiological reasons but 
because of the commercial pressure to make the existing TV sets for- 
cibly redundant by switching off the analogue delivery system. The 
redesign of screen shape is to provide a marketing brand to sell digital 
television to a public who are not interested in the hardware that 
provides them with their favourite programme but only in the intrinsic 
interest of the programmes themselves. A 16:9 widescreen screen has 
been commercially spun into a 'must have' consumer product with a 
complete disregard of the huge back hbrary of 4:3 productions and 
with a muddle of distorted images stretching beyond a supposedly 
'interim' period until all programmes are produce in widescreen. The 
question the viewer should ask is, for whose benefit is this forcible 
transition (there is no choice) being undertaken, and at what cost to 
the huge back hbrary of 4:3 TV productions on the shelves of TV 

The 16:9 format is the hardware - programmes are the software. It is 
what is done with equipment that is important, not the equipment 
itself, but it is the hardware that is constantly being promoted. With 
Cinerama, it was the format that took precedence over story or star, 
the content followed on from the widescreen 'experience'. 

Widescreen television is a technical toy to be played with. There are 
buttons for the viewer to push to distort or expand the image to fit the 
new shape. From a manufacturer's point of view, the new product 
must look different (e.g., at least 16:9 - 14:9 is too similar to 4:3). 
Manufacturers (and engineers) claim they simply deliver the message 
- someone else is responsible for the content, but their motive is to re- 
brand an old product whilst ensuring the existing product is made 
legally obsolete. 

The promotion of widescreen stereo television as home cinema is a 
misleading label. A curved large cinema screen cannot be duplicated as 
a viable domestic TV screen. Most people live in small rooms. TV is 
quite a different communication system, despite sharing many similar 
characteristics with the cinema. 

Of all the justifications for changing the shape of the TV screen the 
need to expand markets appears to be the most compelling. If govern- 
ments can be persuaded to switch off the old analogue services, there 
win be a huge boom in the sale of digital widescreen TV. Until that 
day, the decision to simulcast programmes in both 4:3 and 16:9 in 
Europe does allow the continuation of a single production format. 
We will discuss in 'Widescreen composition and TV (Chapter 9) if a 
single format can be aU things to all screens. 

Summary of film and television formats mentioned 

During the development of film widescreen and HDTV, a number of 
formats were developed and performance levels classified. These 

The shape of the screen 105 

• standard systems: the NTSC, PAL and SECAM systems prior to 
proposals to develop advanced systems; 

• improved definition television (IDTV) systems: standard systems 
modified to off"er improved vertical and/or horizontal definition. 
These are also known as advanced television (ATV) or enhanced 
definition television (EDTV) systems. 'Advanced systems' often 
refers to all systems other than standard ones, or aU systems 
other than standard and 'true' HDTV; 

• high definition television (HDTV) systems: systems having vertical 
and horizontal resolutions approximately twice those of conven- 
tional systems; 

• simulcast systems: systems transmitting conventional NTSC, PAL 
or SECAM on existing channels and HDTV of the same pro- 
gramme on one or more additional channels; 

• production systems: systems intended for use in the production of 
programmes, but not necessarily in their distribution; 

• distribution systems: terrestrial broadcast, cable, satellite, video- 
cassette and videodisc methods of bringing programmes to the 
viewing audience. 


Widescreen composition 
and film 

Finding ways to compose for the new shape 

As we discussed in the previous chapter, the widescreen format was 
promoted as a new visual experience. Following on from Cinerama, 
Twentieth Century Fox introduced CinemaScope, and head of pro- 
duction Darryl Zanuck repeatedly reminded his directors that they 
should take full advantage of the screen width by staging action all 
the way across the frame - in his words, 'keep the people spread out'. 
He wanted the audience to experience the fuU width of the new screen 
shape. Initially it was the technology that was being promoted rather 
than story or stars. 

There had been a fashion in Academy ratio black and white films 
to stage in depth with tight groups in the foreground and back- 
ground. The lack of colour film sensitivity, and initially the longer 
lenses available for CinemaScope, did not allow the same depth-of- 
field for this type of staging and so alternative compositions - the 
'washing line' staging demanded by Zanuck - were a practical solu- 
tion as well as a commercial imperative. Anamorphic shorter focal 
length lenses (standard in black and white production) produced 
distortion, dizzying swoops in perspective when panned and curved 
horizon hnes. Later, Panavision allowed a wider choice of lenses and 
colour film sensitivity improved. 

There was a continuous discussion on what changes were required in 
the standard 4:3 visual framing conventions that had developed in 
cinema since its beginnings. Academy ratio and staging in depth 
encouraged the spectator to look into the frame; widescreen and sta- 
ging across the frame required the spectator to scan across the frame. 
When depth was added to width in widescreen films, the director or 
cinematographer had to devise ways of directing the attention across 
the frame and into the frame. The American film director Howard 
Hawks complained that the audience had too much to look at. 

Widescreen composition and film 


Figure 8.1 (a) This three shot 
composition uses the full width of 
the widescreen but it could not be 
adequately converted for 4:3 TV 
showing. If there was an attempt 
to produce two shots (b) and (c) in 
order to cover the dialogue 
exchange between the two 
outside characters, the middle 
character would jump across 
frame on the cut. If a centre 
portion of the shot was used (d) 
then both dialogue actors would 
be out of shot 

In Academy ratio composition blocking, wlien people were split at 
either end of the frame, either they were restaged or the camera repo- 
sitioned to 'lose' the space between them. Cinema widescreen compo- 
sitions relied less on the previous fashion for tight, diagonal, dynamic 
groupings in favour of seeing the participants in a setting. But using 
the full widescreen width as required by the studio bosses could have 
an unintended meaning. In a widescreen frame, a two shot with actors 
on either side of the frame left a large space in the centre of the frame. 
An audience may understand this image to signify that the two people 
were estranged or 'distant' with each other compared with a similar 
shot in Academy ratio. 

Lining up the actors across the frame was quickly abandoned in 
favour of masking off portions of the frame with unimportant bland 
areas in order to emphasize the main subject. This effectively created a 
frame within a frame. Other compositions simply grouped the parti- 
cipants in the centre of the frame and allowed the edges to look after 
themselves - a premature 'protect and save' design (see below). There 
were directors who balanced an off-centre artiste with a small area of 
colour or highlight on the opposite side of the frame. This type of 
widescreen composition was destroyed if the whole frame was not 
seen (e.g., when broadcast on 4:3 television). 

The initial concern was that the decrease in frame height meant that 
shots had to be looser and therefore had less dramatic tension. 
Another problem was that if artistes were staged at either side of the 
screen, the intervening setting became more prominent. 

Many film directors exploited the compositional potential of the 
new shape. They made big bold compositional widescreen designs 
knowing that they would be seen in the cinema as they were framed. 
Their adventurous widescreen compositions were later massacred on 
TV with pan and scan or simply being shown in 4:3 with the sides 
chopped off. 

Widescreen advantages 

There were several compositional advantages of widescreen. Although 
very big close-ups on a giant screen were sHghtly ludicrous, directors 
could stage dialogue scenes between two or three characters within the 
same frame in close shot without intercutting. Because of the screen 
width, closer shots of actors would still leave space for location of 
background action (if it could be held in focus). Widescreen, in the 
words of the director Henry King, 'allows cause and effect to be shown 
in the saine shot'. 

With the technical problems solved, the solutions to guiding atten- 
tion were found and widescreen composition quickly reverted to simi- 
lar stagings used in Academy format. The fear of 'too much to look at' 
was eventually seen as an advantage and compositions were created 
that had a rich visual complexity. The other end of visual design is seen 
in David Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962) where, in a very wide 
shot, two camel riders gallop towards each other from opposite sides 
of the screen. The staging of the action contrasts the space of the desert 
with the smallness of the characters. This is widescreen spectacle as 
envisaged when the screen shape was changed but achieved with an 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

almost empty frame instead of cramming it with action. The same 
sense of space is created by John Sturges in 'Bad Day at Black 
Rock' (1955) in the title sequence featuring a train travelhng in an 
empty landscape. These widescreen compositions reinforce the old 
advice that sometimes 'less means more'. 

Widescreen composition, once the technology allowed, returned to 
Academy format conventions with complex camera movement, sta- 
ging to provide Hues of force across or into the background and eye 
line glances to counterweigh the composition. Lighting, focus zone, 
actor position and setting directed the spectator's attention to the 
dominant subject/s of the shot. 

Selling off the redundant format 

Film, and later TV, always had problems with the mismatch between 
recorded aspect ratio and the aspect ratio of display. In the 1950s it 
had been the non-standard widescreen formats that caused problems 
in cinema screenings. Even in April 1953, the first year of widescreen, 
in order for Paramount to get a 'widescreen' film into the cinema, 
'Shane' (1953), which had been shot Academy ratio, was recom- 
mended by Paramount to be projected in a 1.66:1 ratio. Cropping 
the original frame provided a bargain basement version of widescreen. 
Academy ratio became associated with TV, whilst widescreen ratio 
was linked to film. The back film libraries of the studios were now 
considered obsolete and could be sold off to TV. But not only 'flat' 
(screen) aspect ratio productions. In September 1961, Twentieth 
Century Fox's 'How to Marry a Mfllionaire' became the first wide- 
screen film to be shown on television in the USA. It was also the first 
film to be panned and scanned with a very primitive pan/scan device. 

Pan and scan 

Figure 8.2 Nose talks to ear on 

Any widescreen aspect ratio other than Academy format created prob- 
lems when shown on a 4:3 television screen. It could be shown with 
large black bands at the top and bottom of the TV screen, but broad- 
casters considered this was unacceptable to the viewer. If the full 
height of a widescreen frame filled the TV screen, then only a portion 
of the width could be seen. At the worst, 43 per cent of the film area is 
lost in pan and scan transfers of 2.35:1 format. Of 1.85:1 format, 
28 per cent is lost in pan and scan transfers. 

As many early widescreen films intentionally filled the full width of 
the frame, at the very least compositions could be wrecked and at the 
very worst, important subjects could be out of the frame when shown 
on TV (see Figure 8.1). In an early widescreen film, 'The High and the 
Mighty' (1954) shown on television, John Wayne's nose talks to 
Robert Stack's ear across a TV frame filled with an aircraft cockpit. 

These early widescreen film compositions made no concession to the 
film being viewed on television. When transmitted on a 4:3 TV screen 
attempts were made to 'pan' the image to keep significant action 
within the transmission frame. The 'pan and scan' conversion of wide- 
screen to 4:3 aspect ratio often introduced unmotivated pans following 

Widescreen composition and film 109 

dialogue from one side of the widescreen to tlie otlier. Portions of the 
widescreen composition were plundered from the original shot to form 
new shots and this devalued the original camerawork and editing. 

Pan and scan either took a portion of the frame that was considered 
the most important (usually dialogue led) or panned from subject to 
subject to fohow dialogue or cut from one portion of the screen to 
another portion of the screen (again following dialogue) introducing a 
cutting rate that never occurred when the film was originally produced. 

These decisions were usually made by a technician employed by the 
broadcasting organizations working to a simple rule of keeping who- 
ever was speaking in a 4:3 frame, or to follow the central character. 
This elimination of up to 43 per cent of the frame significantly altered 
the look, pace and tempo of the film. In 1985 Woody Allen managed 
to secure a contractual agreement with United Artists giving him con- 
trol of the video versions of his films. He introduced letterboxing on 
the video cassette versions of his work. Twentieth Fox developed an 
optical printer that extracted a 4:3 portion of a CinemaScope frame 
to provide a print for television. Whatever system was used, up to 
43 per cent of the original frame was lost and the aesthetics of the 
film completely altered. 

Cinematographers alarmed 

Cinematographers and directors were naturally alarmed at the way 
their widescreen compositions were butchered by the pan and scan 
process. The reframing and recutting of the film for TV transmission 
was completely out of their control. Many film makers began to take 
precautions against the worst excesses of this arbitrary and casual 
recomposing and recutting of their productions. 

They had to consider when shooting a film, that if shown on TV (as 
films often were) they were, in effect, creating a production for two 
incompatible aspect ratios. The simple solution would be to group any 
significant information in the centre of frame. This made for ugly 
widescreen compositions and in effect negated the whole reason for 
having a wider format. 

During the late 1960s and 1970s, they devised other and more subtle 
ways of providing compositions suitable for the two formats. One 
solution was to keep the dominant subject/s in an area of the frame 
that could be cleanly extracted for 4:3 viewing, but to use the remain- 
ing 50 per cent of the widescreen frame for supporting visual motifs 
to ampHfy or reinforce the main plot structure. These helped to enrich 
the visual images but could be deleted for a simpler television shot 

The disposable two-shot was another popular fudge to bridge the 
two formats. In widescreen the two-shot was standard framing of a 
foreground figure with their back to camera. When this was panned 
and scanned for television, the foreground figure's back of head could 
easily be lost, turning the widescreen shot into a standard MCU. The 
reverse shot of this set-up was similarly turned into a MCU. 

In a similar way, singles of actors were framed either extreme right 
or left for intercut dialogue scenes. When the 4:3 frame was extracted 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 8.3 The disposable two 
shot allowed pan/scan cropping 
when converting a widescreen 
filnn (a) for TV transmission to 
produce a clean MCU (b). The 
reverse two shot would produce a 
complementary MCU 

most of the empty widescreen space was lost and standard intercut 
dialogue shots remained. 

Boom in shot 

A secondary problem with TV transmissions of widescreen films was 
that many films achieved a 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 aspect ratio by cropping or 
masking the top and bottom of a standard 35 mm frame. These films 
were shot in fuU frame with the intention of a widescreen aperture 
plate being used in the projector. The top and bottom of the 35 mm 
frame could include booms, lamps, shooting off the top of sets, etc., 
because they were in a part of the frame that would never be seen by a 
cinema audience. When shown on TV, the whole of the frame was 
transmitted and this unrequired 'garbage' was seen by the TV viewer. 
More of Faye Dunaway's nudity in the opening sequence of 'Bonnie 
and Clyde' (1967) was seen by TV viewers than by cinema audiences. 

The growth of multiplexes 

Apart from television format incompatibility, two problems often 
occur in widescreen cinema projection. The first is a simple lack of 
communication when labelling film cans. Often no detailed advice 
about the right aspect ratio is mentioned apart from 'scope', and if 
the print shows Academy frames (as most American prints do) it is 
very difficult for the projectionist to guess which aspect ratio mask and 
which lens will be required. Contrary to this, the sound systems are 
very clearly defined! Regardless of the aperture plate used in the cam- 
era, the prints should show the one aspect ratio estabhshed by the 
director and the DoP. 

Often only one projectionist operates aU projectors. In the prolifera- 
tion of Multiplexes in Europe, a projector may have only one ana- 
morphic lens and a spherical lens plus variable masks. Selecting lens 
and mask automatically sets the screen curtains. If the projector can 
only handle Cinemascope/1.85: 1 formats the top and bottom of films 
shot in 1.375:1 or 1.66:1 are projected outside of the screen! The 
number of cinemas that are able to screen all formats is decreasing. 

Common topline and super 35 

To protect essential information in one format for viewing in another 
format causes a number of problems, no more so than in the protec- 
tion of headroom. Safeguarding the top of the frame to avoid heads 
being cropped resulted in the development of the common tophne on 
super 35 mm. The full aperture area is exposed but each format 
(2.35:1, 1.85:1, 1.66:1 and 1.33:1) share a common tophne. However 
the print is projected, the headroom is safeguarded, even if the sides of 
the wider frames are cropped for a narrower width viewing format. 

This does involve the lower part of the frame, which is not part of 
the widescreen frame, being seen when the whole frame is transmitted 
in 4:3. Cables, tracks, microphones are often just below the widescreen 

Widescreen composition and film 111 

frame but these will all be seen in the bottom part of the 1.33:1 TV 
frame. The use of zoom lenses can also cause problems because the 
middle of the 2.35:1 frame is not only offset horizontally because of the 
super 35 format but is also higher than the middle of the regular frame. 
When zooming, the centre of the lens needs to coincide with the centre 
of the aspect ratio otherwise the camera will need to be continuously 
reframed to compensate. 


Directors and cameramen attempted to use the full width of wide- 
screen but were finally forced to find ways of shooting for two aspect 
ratios - CinemaScope and TV. 

Television converted widescreen film for its 4:3 aspect ratio by the 
crude use of pan and scan. 


Widescreen composition 
and TV 


After more than 20 years of argument about what should be the tech- 
nical standards for a universal higher definition television system (see 
Chapter 7), the only consensus arrived at was to change the shape of 
the screen. The new aspect ratio was to be 16:9. In most countries, 
apart from a gradual transition from analogue to digital production/ 
reception, this new screen shape was the only change that survived the 
international aspiration towards an HDTV service. 

The adoption of a 16:9 television screen was a compromise that 
enabled programme makers to avoid producing programmes in two 
aspect ratios during the transitional period, provided precautions were 
taken in the composition of shots during production. That is, each 
shot was a compromise between the two aspect ratios (see 'Protect and 
save', below). Just as film makers had faced many compositional prob- 
lems in trying to accommodate two or more incompatible viewing 
formats on the same negative, so television programme makers, 30 
or 40 years later, were faced with similar irreconcilable framings. 

Secondly, it allowed improved transmission of feature films 
although still requiring either the much disliked (by the film industry) 
panning and scanning or, alternatively, transmitting the whole frame 
with black bands at the top and bottom of the new 16:9 screen. 


Cinema widescreen film production continues in aspect ratios of 
2.35:1, 1.85:1, 1.66:1 and others. There is also a huge fibrary of film 
and television material shot in the ratio of 1.33:1 (4:3). If the whole of 
a frame of a format wider than 16:9 is transmitted on television then it 
will fiU only a portion of the 16:9 screen. The remaining part of the 

Widescreen composition and TV 113 

screen will be filled with black bands top and bottom. The wider the 
aspect ratio, the broader the bands. This is called letterboxing. If 
uncropped 4:3 aspect ratio productions are shown on a 16:9 screen 
they will be accompanied by black vertical bands left and right of the 
screen (side curtains). 

The use of only a portion of their display screen was resisted by 
viewers in some countries, for example, some UK viewers complained 
to the BBC that they paid a full licence fee and therefore they wanted a 
full screen image! Other countries, those who were accustomed to 
viewing foreign programmes with subtitles inserted in this bottom 
black band letterbox area, were unworried by watching the whole of 
a widescreen feature film with no cropping. Perhaps broadcasters 
should attempt to educate their viewers with the truth that by filling 
their TV screens with a film image they are not getting more for their 
money but less. When viewing on 4:3 screens, they are denying them- 
selves up to 40 per cent of the film they are watching (see Figure 8.1). 

Similar complaints were voiced when colour TV was introduced and 
a monochrome film was transmitted. The viewer then argued: '1 
bought a colour TV set and I demand that all programmes 1 receive 
should be in colour.' This led to the synthetic colourizing of classic 
black and white films such as 'Casablanca' (1942), Laurel and Hardy, 
and the Astaire/Rogers films in order to make them more 'acceptable' 
to a section of the viewing public. 

Aspect ratio conversion 

As we have discussed, some widescreen film makers, when they saw 
their compositions massacred on TV, adopted a composition policy of 
keeping their main groupings and action in the centre of frame. This 
defeated the advantages of the widescreen shape but it safeguarded 
their product for a bigger market. Television programme makers have 
had to adopt the same policy to service display screens that have 
different aspect ratios. 

Electronically, a picture could be cropped or expanded to fit any 
shape, but this would lead to loss of information, loss of resolution 
and possibly picture distortion when images are stretched to fit a 
different shape to their production aspect ratio. It would also destroy 
the compositional skills of the originators of the programmes. 

Some type of aspect ratio conversion has to be employed either 
before the programme is transmitted or at the receiver. Several coun- 
tries utilize a compromise aspect ratio of 14:9 to bridge the gap 
between 16:9 production demands and 4:3 receivers. The ratio con- 
verter chops out portions of the left and right of the frame for 4:3 
viewers who watch with a small black border top and bottom of the 

16:9 set-top aspect ratio conversion is also under the control of the 
viewer who can select full frame with black side curtains left and right 
of the image when watching a 4:3 transmission or partial expansion of 
the 4:3 frame to a 14:9 shape when information is equally lost at top 
and bottom of frame. Full expansion of the 4:3 image to fill the 16:9 
frame (zooming in) with information lost balanced between top and 
bottom or distributed according to picture content. Picture content, of 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

- 14:9 picture edge 

- 16:9 picture edge 

Picture safe 5% - 
Grapliics safe 10% 

course, changes with each shot. Some set-top aspect ratio converters 
also provide for non-Hnear distortion of the horizontal part of the 4:3 
frame to fit a 16:9 TV set. 

Transmitting a mixture of aspect ratio formats will always need 
conversion unless the unlikely step is taken to scrap all 4:3 programme 
material when everyone has converted to 16:9 reception. Black and 
white movies continue to be popular 40 years after the introduction of 
colour television. The decision to change the TV aspect ratio was not 
simply a technological change, it has and wiU have continuous 
programme making and programme watching implications. 

Figure 9.1 The viewfinder is set to 
display the full 16:9 picture with a 
graticule superimposed showing 
the border of a 14:9 frame and a 
4:3 frame 

Protect and save 

Cameramen shooting in 16:9 foUow a 'shoot and protect' framing 
pohcy. The viewfinder is set to display the full 16:9 picture with a 
graticule superimposed showing the border of a 14:9 frame and a 
4:3 frame (Figure 9.1). Significant subject matter is kept within the 
14:9 border or, if there is a hkelihood of the production being trans- 
mitted in 4:3, within the smaller 4:3 frame. The area between 16:9 and 
14:9 must be still usable for future full digital transmissions and there- 
fore must be kept clear of unwanted subject matter. This is similar to 
the problems experienced in feature film productions that were shot in 
4:3 but were intended to be projected in the cinema with a hard matte 
in widescreen. 'Shoot and protect' attempts to avoid the hazards of 
multi-aspect viewing by centring most of the essential information and 
avoiding any unwanted elements at the extreme edge of the horizontal 
frame that may be seen in the future. 

Figure 9.2 If the 'protect and save' 
viewfinder indicators are ignored 
when framing, for example, a golf 
shot in 16:9 aspect ratio (a), 
viewers watching a 4:3 picture will 
have a poorly composed picture 
(b) and no indication, when the 
ball exits right on their viewed 
picture, if the ball has entered the 
hole. With this framing, it is likely 
that even if the programme is 
transmitted in 14:9 aspect ratio, 
many viewers (with over-scanned 
TV receivers) will not be able to 
see the hole on the right of the 
frame present in the original 16:9 

Shooting for two formats 

Shoot and protect negates the claimed advantages of the widescreen 
shape because for the transitional period the full widescreen potential 
cannot be used. The film and television widescreen format has the 
potential for dynamic and arresting compositions; the problem is 
that the width of the format both in film and TV is rarely exploited. 
More often than not, the director or cameraman has to safeguard the 
composition for showing in other format sizes. 

Some broadcasters who have adopted a 14:9 transmission aspect 
ratio have not fully converted all their cameras to 16:9 shooting. 
Camera operators using 4:3 cameras need to increase the headroom 
on a shot because the top and bottom of the frame wiU be cropped 
when it passes through an aspect ratio converter. This often leads to 
poor framing because the only guide the operator has is usually an 
inaccurate piece of gaffer tape indicating a notional top of a 14:9 
frame. Not for the first time, in many cameramen's experience, has 
'state-of-the-art' technology been made workable with gaffer tape. For 
some years, one of the first questions a cameraman will ask is 'what 
aspect ratio is the programme going to be transmitted in?'. 

Widescreen composition and TV 115 

Composing for 16:9 

If anything, television is more of a 'talking heads' medium than cinema 
but the advent of the larger, wider aspect TV screen has tended to 
emphasize location and setting. There are compositional advantages 
and disadvantages in using different aspect ratios. Widescreen is good 
at showing relationships between people and location. Sports coverage 
benefits from the extra width in following live events. Composing 
closer shots of faces is usually easier in the 4:3 aspect ratio but, as in 
film, during the transition to widescreen framing during the 1950s, new 
framing conventions are being developed and old 4:3 compositional 
conventions that do not work are abandoned. The shared priority in 
working in any aspect ratio is knowing under what conditions the 
audience will view the image. 

One of the main compositional conventions with 4:3 television fram- 
ing is the search for ways of tightening up the overall composition. This 
is partly due to fashion but also because viewing a TV picture occupies a 
much smaller zone of the human field of view compared with cinema 
viewing. Wide shots on television with small detail are not easily per- 
ceived on an average size receiver. Tight compositions eliminating all 
but the essential information have traditionally been preferred. 

A conventional TV single can cause problems in framing in wide- 
screen and bits of people tend to intrude into the edge of frame. This is 
sometimes called a 'dirty single'. Headroom has tended to be smaller 
than 4:3 framing and there are some problems in editing, particularly if 
the cut is motivated by action on the edge of a 16:9 frame, which may 
not be visible to 14:9 or 4:3 screen viewers. 

The problem with the video compositional transition to widescreen 
is the inhibition to use the fuU potential of the 16:9 shape because the 
composition has to be all things to aU viewers. It must fit the 14:9 
shape but also satisfy the 4:3 viewer. It is difficult to know when the 
full potential of the widescreen shape can be utilized because, even if 
the majority of countries switch off analogue transmissions at some 
time in the first decades of the century, there will probably be bilHons 
of TV sets worldwide that will still be 4:3 analogue. 

Widescreen television composition faces some of the same problems 
that film solved 40 years ago. Many film and television scripts require 
the speaker and the listener to be in the same frame. Two people 
talking created the mixture of close-ups, medium close-ups and over- 
the-shoulder two shots that form the basic shot pattern of many 
scenes. Shots tighter than MCU can be difficult to frame for 16:9 
and the tendency is to continually tighten to lose the 'space' around 
the ears. Low angles appear more dynamic than similar 4:3 aspect 
ratio shots but hand-held camerawork in 16:9 can be very obtrusive 
and distracting. 

When people are being interviewed, there is an optimum distance 
between them where they both feel at ease. The single shot on 16:9 has 
the problem of avoiding being too tight and producing a 'looking 
through a letterbox' look whilst avoiding being too loose and getting 
the interviewer in shot in the 'looking space' of the interviewee. The 
compromise is an over-the-shoulder two shot but care must be taken 
in the reverse to get good continuity in body posture, etc. There needs 
to be greater physical separation between presenters, interviewers, etc.. 

116 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

to avoid edges of arms, shoulders creeping into tiie edge of tlie frame. 
This has a knock-on effect on the front-on two shot where the parti- 
cipants now appear to have too much space between them. 

The advantage claimed for 16:9 (especially HDTV) is that the 
increased size of screen and the improved definition in wide shots is 
so good that fewer close-ups are required. This can create its own 
problems in editing. Wide shots need to be sufficiently different in 
their distribution of similar objects to avoid jump cuts in editing. 
Typical bad cuts can happen with seascape horizons (yacht racing, 
etc.) where the yachts jump in and out of frame if the horizon is in 
the same position in successive shots. The same 'jump' can happen 
with some types of landscape. A good cut needs a change in shot size 
or significant change in content to be invisible. Decisions about edit 
points on slow entrances and exits that hover on the edge of frame can 
be very difficult when shot 16:9 if the majority of viewers are watching 
a 14:9 frame on a 4:3 screen. 

There is the advantage of 16:9 allowing a wider shot with less sky or 
ground, and square-on shots of buildings can replace the angled shot 
necessary in a 4:3 frame to include all the structure. Close-ups of 
strong vertical subjects (e.g., fingering on clarinets and saxophones) 
are a problem but keyboard shots are easier, and 'edgy' objects on the 
edge of frame do not seem to be so distracting in the wide format. 

Film at least had one advantage over TV widescreen. At some time in 
the film's history it was usually shown in full frame width in a cinema. 
Widescreen TV at the moment, in many countries, is in effect 14:9 - 
nearly widescreen. It does not satisfy the 16:9 viewer, and it doesn't help 
the 4:3 viewer who is now getting a smaller image on his set. 

Fidgety zooms 

Widescreen working has brought with it a new camera-operating pit- 
fall. Whilst broadcasting an opera, two singers were framed in mid- 
shot and transmitted to analogue viewers in 14:9 and to digital viewers 
in 16:9. They swayed away from each other towards their respective 
edge of frames with a gap opening between them. It became an awk- 
ward, clumsy composition that quickly needed adjustment. 

The cameraman watching his/her 16:9 viewfinder with a 14:9 'safe 
area' obviously let them get close to the edge of the 14:9 frame. In a 
16:9 viewfinder picture it probably began to make quite a good com- 
position with the two-shot spread across the frame. In 14:9 it began to 
get very uncomfortable. A simple operating solution, when the action 
begins to burst out of the frame, is to loosen the shot. It is almost 
nearly always unobtrusive because the action naturally forces the shot 
wider. It is good 'invisible' technique, which is the bedrock of camera- 
work. Watching in 16:9 however, correcting the shot for the 14:9 
viewer would result in a fidgety zoom-out as the two subjects were 
swaying into a more balanced composition. In 16:9, there was no 
obvious visual reason to slightly widen the shot. It would become 
one of those nasty fidgety zoom corrections that are inevitable in 
live TV, forced on the cameramen when covering unrehearsed action. 

So the worst of both worlds. The 14:9 viewer gets an edgy, unbal- 
anced shot followed by the 16:9 viewer suddenly having his balanced 

Widescreen composition and TV 117 

widescreen shot loosened to unbalance the shot again. In most coun- 
tries this transitional period is due to last for a minimum of ten years 
but mixed aspect ratio problems wiU roll on across the broadcasting 
world for very much longer and probably will never be resolved. 

Transitional period 

The worldwide change-over period from mass viewing on a 4:3 ana- 
logue set to mass viewing on a 16:9 digital monitor, and therefore mass 
programme production for 16:9 television, will take many years. The 
transition period wiU require a compromise composition but the com- 
positional problems do not end there. The back-library of 4:3 pro- 
grammes and films is enormous and valuable and will continue to be 
transmitted across a wide range of channels in the future. The com- 
plete image can be viewed on a 16:9 screen if black bars are displayed 
either side of the frame. They can be viewed by filling the full width of 
the 16:9 display at the cost of cutting part of the top and bottom of the 
frame or, at the viewer's discretion, they can be viewed by a non-hnear 
expansion of picture width, progressively distorting the edges of the 
frame to fill the screen 4:3 aspect ratio. 

The same size camera viewfinders used for 4:3 aspect ratio are often 
switched to a 16:9 display. This in effect gives a smaller picture area if 
the 14:9 'shoot and protect' centre of frame framing is used and makes 
focus and following distant action more difficult. Also, the majority of 
video cameramen are probably the only viewers stiU watching colour 
TV pictures in monochrome. Colour is not only essential to pick up 
individuals in sports events such as football, where opposing team 
shirts may look identical in monochrome, but in aU forms of pro- 
gramme production colour plays a dominant role in composition. 

From a cameraman's point of view, the biggest difficulty during the 
transition period is attempting to find a compositional compromise 
between the two aspect ratios. If a 16:9 image is transmitted in a 
letterbox format then all shots can be framed with respect to the 
16:9 border. However, most broadcasters still provide an analogue 
4:3/14:9 service. There is very little satisfactory compromise that can 
be made in an attempt to compose for both formats at the same time. 

Composition problems wiU continue while 16:9 and 4:3 simulta- 
neous productions are being shot during the analogue/digital change- 
over. They neither take full advantage of the width of 16:9 nor do they 
fit comfortably with the old 4:3 shape. Possibly ten years of dual 
format compromise production will then join the back library and 
be transmitted from then on. The only safe solution is the 'protect 
and save' advice of putting essential information in the centre of 
frame, but that is a sad limitation on the compositional potential of 
the widescreen shape. 

The viewer takes control 

Often the widescreen signal is embedded with active format descriptor 
(AFD) - widescreen signalling to the set, which automatically selects 
the appropriate display format for the incoming programme. Many 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

(a) 4:3 
Original framing 

(b) 4:3 

Picture on 16:9 receiver 

(c) 4:3 

Stretched to fill 16:9 receiver 


(d) 4:3 

Centre ol frame zoomed to 

fill 1 6:9 receiver 

(e) 4:3 

Centre of frame zoomed to 

fill 16:9 receiver 

Figure 9.3 It is a paradox tfiat in 
some countries, viewers actively 
dislike thie black band side 
curtains (b) wfien watching a 4:3 
picture on a 16:9 receiver and 
appear to prefer eitfier tfie 
distortion introduced wfien 
stretching the 4:3 picture to fit the 
16:9 screen (c) or to crop the top 
and bottom of the transmitted 
image (d). Unless the viewer 
constantly monitors and adjust 
this last option (zooming), 
subsequent shots may suffer loss 
of essential information (e) 

16:9 digital receivers also provide the viewer with control of how the 
picture is to be displayed. They can select full frame with black side 
curtains left and right of the image when watching a 4:3 transmission 
or select a partial expansion of the 4:3 frame to a 14:9 shape when 
information is equally lost at top and bottom of frame. They can 
choose full expansion of the 4:3 image to fiU the 16:9 frame (zooming 
in) with information lost balanced between top and bottom or distrib- 
uted according to picture content. Picture content, of course, changes 
with each shot, therefore the viewer would need to monitor and adjust 
for every shot. Some receiver aspect ratio converters also provide for 
non-linear distortion of the horizontal part of the 4:3 frame to fit a 
16:9 TV set. 

Some 16:9 TV receivers have a progressive distortion (anamorphic) 
facility to stretch a 4:3 transmitted image. This progressive rate of 
expansion across the screen results in the snooker example (Figure 
9.3) of the ball's shape changing as it travels across the frame. It is 
ironic that decades of research and development expended on produ- 
cing perfect electronic images that are free from geometric distortion 
can be negated by the touch of a button on a channel changer. 
Weather presenters change shape from fat to thin as they walk across 
the frame, or shoot out their arm to double its apparent length when 
this aspect ratio conversion option is selected. 

Inserting 4:3 material into a 16:9 production 

In many types of programme there is often the need to use archive 
material. For example, a sports programme profiling a well known 
sportsman may be shot in 16:9 when interviewing the main subject 
but will insert 4:3 material of past sporting success. The 4:3 material 
can be inserted via an aspect ratio converter into a 16:9 frame but will 
have large black 'side curtains'. These will pass unnoticed by a 4:3 
viewer watching a 14:9 version of the programme but a 16:9 viewer 
will have constant obtrusive vertical black bars jumping in and out of 
the frame whenever the archive material is used. 

To make the 4:3 material less intrusive to the widescreen viewer the 
producer/director may, in post-production, expand the 4:3 material to 
fit a 14:9 frame losing variable proportions of top or bottom of the 4:3 
image. Depending on content, this may smooth out the transition 
between the formats whilst still inserting narrow vertical bars in the 
16:9 viewer's display whenever the archive footage is used. The diffi- 
culty comes when, for example, the head, feet and footbaU are hard 
framed in the 4:3 material aUowing no flexibihty in cropping top or 
bottom. Either the head is cut off or the footbaU goes out of frame. 
This is often solved by expanding the 4:3 image horizontally to fit the 
14:9 frame but, of course, this causes distortion to the image and a thin 
footballer instantly gains weight and becomes fatter and wider. 
Although this distortion may seem unacceptable it is in fact seen in 
programmes most weeks. 

Film has had similar problems of incorporating different aspect 
ratios in the same production. In the widescreen film 'The Guns of 
Navarone' (1961) 4:3 aspect ratio film is intercut with widescreen. 
Frangois Truffaut's 'Jules and Jim' (1962) uses Academy ratio first 

Widescreen composition and TV 119 

war footage expanded to fill the widescreen aspect ratio. This 
obviously distorts the early film footage. 

If a production is originally shot in 4:3 and is then converted to a 
16:9 version by using a selected area of the frame, further loss of image 
can occur when the 16:9 version is then transmitted in a 4:3 broadcast. 
Credits and graphics often suffer the most from aspect ratio conver- 
sion. An early victim was the opening titles of 'Picnic' (1955) starring 
Wilham Holden. His credit was transmitted on US television as 
Wilham Ho. 

Compilation programmes 

One hundred years of film footage provide the raw material for tele- 
vision history programmes that reflect social history and the lives of 
ordinary people as reflected in film and TV archives. There is no dis- 
tortion of this primary source, other than what is present in the script 
treatment, if the images are presented in their original aspect ratio. 
However, with the growth of 16:9 TV, this authentic material is subject 
to distortion and cropping to fit the newer aspect ratio. It is, in effect, a 
distortion of historical material that would be unacceptable to histor- 
ians if the primary source was written archives. Compilation pro- 
grammes that review popular culture in the past by showing chps of 
popular 4:3 television shows also crop and chop the originals to fit the 
newer shape. They are not doing what they purport to be doing - 
showing the original programme. They are showing a portion of the 
original programme. 

One of the fallacies voiced when 16:9 screen format was adopted 
was that, although there would be incompatibilities, these would soon 
pass after a transitional period. This is based on the assumption that 
when all new programmes are produced in 16:9 there would be no 
problems when viewed on 16:9 screens. This limited view completely 
ignores the huge back hbrary of 4:3 programmes. These programmes 
are not only very popular and therefore a commercial asset, but there 
is no sign of a dechne in the demand for such titles (e.g., Tom and 
Jerry cartoons, classic feature films). It is as if a hbrary with a standard 
shelf size decides to reduce its shelf height and thereafter requires all 
new books to fit this module. Anything written and printed before this 
changeover is deemed obsolete. Old book sizes that won't fit are 
casually cropped or squashed to fit the new shelf height. 

What was also ignored in the decision to change to 16:9 was the 
huge international trade in television and film programming that 
would involve shooting in one ratio, converting to another and possi- 
bly shown in a third aspect ratio with each conversion losing part of 
the image. 

Distortion and definition 

Twentieth Century Fox engineer, Lorin Grignon, provided a report on 
the Cinerama format when it was first introduced and suggested that it 
had inherent picture distortion. ContinuaUy in television studios, in- 
vision monitors have cropped or distorted images. Distorted pictures 

120 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

in mixed-format programmes are transmitted as standard, which 
20 years ago would have been rejected. A magazine advertisement 
urging the consumer to buy a widescreen television to increase their 
enjoyment of television football matches, displays a TV set with a 
footballer whose head is almost out of the top of the frame whilst 
kicking a footbaU that is almost out of the bottom of the frame. For 
the advert, they have simply inserted a 4:3 picture into a 16:9 set and 
obviously missed the irony of urging people to buy a TV set that 
displays less of their favourite sport than their existing receiver. 

Widescreen equals spectacle 

The assumption that widescreen equates with spectacle is a throwback 
to the Hollywood attempts in the 1950s to meet the growing competi- 
tion of television with 'spectacular' productions that TV could not 
provide. Since that period, there have been many productions that 
have demonstrated how effective widescreen is when shooting inter- 
iors. The 'visual fluff' at the edge of a 2.35:1 widescreen image, as one 
technical commentator described it, 'was unnecessary, and could 
always be cropped when transmitted on TV. The imphcation of this 
thinking by vested interests, eager to persuade the public to change the 
shape of their television sets, is that widescreen composition is simply 
4:3 with a little bit of 'visual fluff' tacked on to each end of the frame. 

The disturbing element in this aspect ratio debate is that frequently 
the technical quality and economic viability is argued in detail whereas 
the knock-on effects of cropping and compositional distortions are 
considered a side issue. The justification of widescreen in the first 
place was its abihty to engage the audience. The practicalities of 
achieving a compatible widescreen/Academy size television system 
appear to have swept past that basic point. 

A HoUywood studio boss, Adolph Zukor, claimed that Twentieth 
Century Fox's emphasis on technology in the 1950s, when they intro- 
duced CinemaScope, had blinded them to their chief responsibility, 
which was to make good films. Of course, Zukor at that time was 
chairman of rival company Paramount who had not signed up to 

Screen size 

There is a further consideration in the aspect ratio debate that con- 
cerns size of screen. Someone sitting in a front-row cinema seat may 
have as much as 58° of their field of view taken up by the screen image 
where the viewing distance is 0.9 times the picture height. This can be 
reduced to as little as 9.5° when the same screen is viewed from the 
back row of the cinema at a viewing distance of 6.0 times the picture 
height. A television viewer watching a 51 -cm diagonal tube (21") at a 
viewing distance of 6.3 times the picture height wfll have only 9.2° of 
their field of view taken up by the TV picture. Human vision is aware 
of about 200° in the horizontal plane (although only fuUy concentrat- 
ing on a small proportion of this) and therefore the proportion of the 

Widescreen composition and TV 121 

visual area of a 51 -cm screen in the home occupies only approximately 
4.6 per cent of the maximum field of view of the viewer. 

TV or cinema pictures with rapid movement produce no visual 
fatigue if viewed at a distance equal to about four times picture height, 
although the resolution of the viewed image should be good enough to 
allow a viewing distance of three times the picture height. According to 
NHK research, most people prefer a 5:3 aspect ratio television screen 
with increased definition although, when viewing landscapes and 
sport, many people favoured a 2:1 ratio. 

1.5" viewfinders 

One of the most significant differences between normal perceptual 
experience and the experience of viewing an image in a viewfinder, is 
size. The 1.5" viewfinder image on a standard portable video camera is 
very small and therefore a condensed version of what can be perceived. 
The eye can quickly scan a great diversity of detail in the viewfinder 
image that would not be possible in the original scale. The subject is 
scaled down and perceptually dealt with in a different manner than the 

HDTV has a greatly enhanced definition and a greatly increased 
screen size. Finding focus and the limits of focus on a 1.5" mono- 
chrome viewfinder will become more and more critical and demand- 
ing. Monochrome TV camera viewfinders are two generations behind 
the technology of other areas of television engineering. 

Endnote, or in a different aspect ratio, NDNOT 

The correct aspect ratio in film and television production is virtually 
ignored except by the director and cameraman who laboured over the 
original image. The final display of this image is in the hands of 
commerce whose visual dead eye only takes into consideration stars 
and action except, of course, when the screen shape is promoted to sell 
more cinema tickets or to urge consumers to buy new TV receivers. 

It will never happen, but the intellectual property control of film 
makers concerning the correct aspect ratio for their production should 
be guaranteed from camera to audience display. The audience should 
see the image uncropped, or squeezed or aspect ratio converted exactly 
as the programme maker intended. Aspect ratios are not compatible if 
the chosen frame shape is fully creatively exploited. No programme 
maker should be asked/instructed to provide images that wiU fit dif- 
ferent formats. To frame for several formats at once will inevitably 
degrade the production values and result in an inferior product. 
Panning and scanning destroys the craftsmanship expended on a fea- 
ture film. Broadcasters should resist audience clamour for a cropped 
image simply to fill their TV screen. 'Casablanca' (1942) in colour, is a 
different and inferior film to 'Casablanca' in its original black and 
white. '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968), when viewed on a panned 
and scanned TV screen is shortchanging the audience even if they 
want to be duped. They are not enriched by a screen full of image. 
They are cheated of the complete experience of the film. 

122 Picture Composition for Film and Television 


In many countries, the 16:9 screen shape will be the only element left 
of the new worldwide HDTV standard proposed in the 1980s and 

In order to cater for programme production for two, or possibly 
three aspect ratio display systems, (16:9, 14:9, 4:3), a policy of 'protect 
and save' has been adopted. This requires essential subject or informa- 
tion to be contained within a 14:9 or a 4:3 aspect ratio. 

There are aspect ratio conversion problems when incorporating 4:3 
material into a widescreen programme. 


Past influences 


Many cameramen insist tliat composition is intuitive and assume tliat 
framing decisions are based on personal and subjective opinion. Even 
a cursory examination of an evening's output of television will demon- 
strate the near uniformity of standard conventions in composition. 
The exceptions to what is considered 'good' composition are either 
provided by inexperienced cameramen who have yet to become 
aware of professional techniques (e.g., 'video diaries') or those produc- 
tions where there has been a conscious decision to be 'different'. This 
usually entails misframing conventional shots in the mistaken behef 
that something new and original has been created. In eifect, it is simply 
mispronouncing standard visual language. 

These conventions are learnt and do not arise spontaneously as 
intuitive promptings. Their origins are to be found in changes in paint- 
ing styles over the last 500 years, in the influence of still photography 
and in changes in the style and the technology of film and television 

No one working in the media can escape the influence of past solu- 
tions to visual problems. The evidence is contained in the products of 
more than a century of film making and half a century of television 
production. These are consciously or unconsciously absorbed from the 
moment we begin to watch moving images. Whereas most people 
never concern themselves with the nature of these influences, anyone 
who wishes to make a career in visual communication should be aware 
of the changes and influences on current conventions in composition 
and examine the assumptions that may underpin their own 'intuitive' 

Early influences 

Greek and Renaissance ideals 

The concept of proportion and ratio in composition played an impor- 
tant part in Greek/Roman art and architecture and reappears in some 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

/ \ 

/ '\ 





Figure 10.1 To create a 'Golden 
Rectangle', use the diagonal of 
one half of a square (a) as a 
radius to extend the dimensions 
of the square. The 'Golden 
Rectangle' has the proportions a:b 
= c:a and was used by the Greeks 
in architectural design and by 
Renaissance painters and 

contemporary discussion in tlie 'format' war (see Chapter 7, 'The 
shape of the screen'). 

Compositional balance using this ratio revolves around positioning 
the main visual elements on the subdivisions obtained by dividing the 
golden section according to a prescribed formula (Figure 10.1). 

The Rule of Thirds 

The academic emphasis on proportion and ratio was probably the 
precursor to a popular compositional convention called the Rule of 
Thirds. This 'rule' proposes that a useful starting point for any com- 
positional grouping is to place the main subject of interest on any one 
of the four intersections made by two equally spaced horizontal and 
vertical hnes (Figure 10.2(a) and (b)). 

The ratio of dividing the frame into areas of one-third and two- 
thirds is close to the approximation of a golden section division. 
These ratios occur so often in Western art, architecture and design 
that they became almost a visual convention. The proportions are 
learnt and anticipated in a way that is similar to the expectation of 
a hstener to the resolution of musical harmony. Because of this uncon- 
scious anticipation, composition based on academic principles can 
seem stale and static to those people who have experienced the ava- 
lanche of visual imagery generated by contemporary technology. A 
repetitive simple tune can rapidly lose its appeal if continuously 
heard. Compositions that provide no visual surprises are quickly 'con- 
sumed' and require no second appraisal. 

Another convention of Renaissance composition, especially with 
religious subjects, is to position the main subject in the centre of the 
frame and then to balance this with equal weight subjects on either 
side (see Figure 13.1). 

The equal duplication of figures on either side of the main subject 
gives the centre figure importance but sphts the composition into two 
halves and can produce two equally competing subjects of interest. 
This style of precise formal balance on either side of the frame con- 
trasts with later fashions in composition which sought, by more 
dynamic visual design, to create a strong sense of movement by lead- 
ing the eye, by hne and structure, around the frame. 

The influence of photography 

After the invention of the photographic image in the 1830s, the initial 
novelty of accurate, realistic portraiture gave way to attempts at 
photographic 'art'. Photographers grouped their subjects according 
to the academic conventions of the day and were inclined to favour 
themes and subjects similar to academic painting. The long exposure 
required by the early photographic process also required the subjects 
to remain stiff and immobile to avoid blurring. The evolution of faster 
film allowed snapshot street scenes to be captured. The composition 
now consisted of enclosing a frame around a continuing event and 
this, compared with academic painting, resulted in unbalanced and 
scattered compositional groupings. 

People were captured on the move, entering and leaving the frame, 
which resulted in quite different images from the carefully posed 

Past influences 






(a) Golden rectangle 





(b) 4 X 3 TV aspect ratio 

Figure 10.2 The 'Rule of Thirds' 
proposes that a useful starting 
point for any compositional 
grouping is to place the main 
subject of interest on any one of 
the four intersections made by 
two equally spaced horizontal and 
vertical lines. Dividing the frame 
into areas of one-third and two- 
thirds is a method of constructing 
a golden rectangle (1.618:1) and 
these intersections were often 
used to position key elements of 
the composition 

groups of the long exposure film. The accidental quality of these snap- 
shot compositions was considered by many to be more reahstic and 
life-like than the immobile studio set-ups. Painters were attracted by 
the sense of movement that could be suggested by allowing subjects to 
hover on the edge of the frame (Figure 10.3). 

When the frame cuts a figure there is the implication that the frame 
position is arbitrary, that the scene is endless and a portion of the 
event just happened to be cut by the frame at that point by chance. 
The accidental character of the boundary was indeed arbitrary in 
many snapshots but, as a conscious compositional device, it had 
been used centuries before in Donattelo reliefs and in paintings by 
Mantegna and it is to be found, as a considered design element, in 
Japanese painting (Figure 10.4). 

In an outside broadcast event the viewer may be aware that they are 
being shown selected 'portions' of the event and that the frame can be 
instantly adjusted by zooming in, to provide more detailed informa- 
tion or by zooming out, to include more of the televised event. 

Photography developed a compositional style of the instantaneous 
framing of an everyday event. The most effective 'freeze frame' 
images of arrested motion use the tension created by subjects moving 
apart from each other, and the relationship of subjects (often on the 
edge of frame) in opposition to their environment. The considered 
'spontaneity' of advertising imagery is an artifice carefully crafted to 
make use of naturally occurring events and presented in an attempt 
at innocent simplicity and naturalness. The sophisticated technique 
used to create a seemingly accidental, non-designed image is a long 
way removed from the typical 'hoUday' snapshotter who haphazardly 
puts a frame around an event and rarely achieves a print with the 
impact of the controlled image made by an experienced photogra- 
pher. The quahty of 'random chance' in a composition therefore 
contains many formal devices that an experienced photographer 
will employ and exploit. 

In copying from photographs in the mid-nineteenth century, artists 
attempted to correct this lack of order, the unnaturalness of the snap- 
shot and the lack of pictorial logic, according to academic composi- 
tional principles. The distortion of perspective that sometimes gives 
the snapshot its special power and the accidents of composition were 
ironed out when painters translated photographs into paintings. Some 
painters, however, recognized that the 'non-style' of snapshot compo- 
sition had a vitality lacking in conventional groupings and gave it 
artistic respectabihty by using in many of their paintings the charac- 
teristics of the arbitrary frame and perspective of short exposure 
photography (see Figure 10.3). 

More recent influences 

If photographic imagery provided an alternative to an over-intellectual 
approach to composition, many late nineteenth-century and early 
twentieth-century painters also challenged the received conventions 
of academic subject and design. Part of their traditional role of pro- 
viding a visual record of faces and places was also being eroded by the 
growth of photography. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 10.3 Place de la Concord 
(Vicomete Ludvic Lepic and his 
daughters) (1875), Degas 

The predominant style of painting in the mid-nineteenth century 
favoured reahstic illusionism. Photography, in providing an accurate 
imitation of external reahties, reinforced this existing fashion and to 
some extent supplanted the social role of the artist as the only suppher 
of visual copies of nature, people or places. 

In the 1840s photographic portraiture challenged the traditional 
painted portrait. This was followed in the 1850s, as the emerging 
technology allowed, by a fashion for landscape photography. 
Increasing film sensitivity during the next three decades permitted 
shutter speeds of up to 1 /1000th second to be used and enabled fast- 
moving objects to be frozen. Artists discovered that their customary 
methods of depicting objects in motion were false even though they 
appeared to correspond to normal perception. 

The increased shutter speeds of the 1860s and 1870s allowed snap- 
shot compositions of normal everyday street activity, subjects that had 
rarely been thought suitable for painting. This type of urban reahsm 
not only displayed a new type of composition, utilizing the accidental 
and random design of people and traffic, frozen in motion, but also 
provided new viewpoints of these events, such as the high angle shot 
from the top of a building looking down on to a street. When, in the 
late 1880s, Kodak announced 'You press the button - we do the rest', 
a flood of new 'image makers' were unleashed, unfettered by academic 
art training or academic precepts. 

Reahsm was considered by some to be the new enemy of art and it 
was thought to have been nurtured by the growth of photography. 
Those artists who considered photographs to be no more than 'reflec- 
tions in a looking glass', had to consider what personal aesthetic qua- 
lities they brought to their own paintings. In many cases they moved 

Past influences 


Figure 10.4 The Haneda Ferry 
and Benten Shrine (1858), 
Hiroshige. This composition 
pre-dates tlie widespread use 
of wide-angle foreground 
framing in film and television 

away from an attempt at the literal imitation of nature to more impres- 
sionistic images and later, to colour and form as the prime subject of 
their work. If the camera alone was to be the final arbiter in questions 
concerning visual truths then artists would move to new themes and 
subjects and explore the underlying structure of the psychology of 
perception and the ambiguity of imagery. They examined the differ- 
ences between what one saw and what one knew about a subject. 

Apart from the early photographic attempts to mimic academic 
painting subjects and groupings, the influence in the nineteenth cen- 
tury appeared to flow from photographs to painting. When painting 
found new themes and forms away from realistic illusionism in the 
twentieth century, photographers followed their lead and also 

128 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

attempted to place more emphasis on form and structure - on the 
abstraction of design from nature. 

The use of simple shapes devoid of detail, patterns produced by 
everyday objects, the reduction of tone, colour producing sharp con- 
trasts, 'distressed' texture and fragments of printed ephemera are pop- 
ular photographic images influenced by the changing styles in painting 
in the first decades of the twentieth century. 

There developed a two-way influence between painting and photo- 
graphy with some artists rejecting the Renaissance perspective of a 
single viewpoint and ultimately eliminating figurative subjects from 
their frame. Many became interested in creating compositions of 
colour, hne and tone abstracted from three-dimensional objects. 

These investigations into the nature of two-dimensional pattern on a 
surface influenced photographers who used monochrome to simplify 
the image and to create semi-abstract designs of fine, hght and shade. 
Many contemporary photographic images used in advertising are 
influenced by the experiments carried out in painting 70 or 80 years 

A painter has control of all the design elements in his painting and 
works towards a particular effect. A photographer, recognizing the 
freshness of the design, can find a parallel image and, by careful selec- 
tion, recreate the more abstract graphic image of fine art. The cycle of 
'new' art image foUowed by repetition and recreation within photo- 
graphy (particularly in advertising) all occurred during the twentieth 
century. The process reached a peak in the 1960s when painting incor- 
porated advertising imagery. This reworking of the original commer- 
cial graphic conventions was immediately reclaimed by advertising 
and emerged as a new photographic style. 

Photographic style 

There was anxiety in the mid- 1860s of the growing photographic style 
in painting. There was fierce resistance from the academic exhibitions 
to hanging paintings that appeared to be based on photographs and 
there was a heated debate about the nature of photographic style. 

As we have discussed, one aspect of monochrome compositions is 
the tendency to emphasize line and tone. Also, people were unused to 
some types of photographic perspective that, although often identical 
to retina perspective, remained ignored or unacknowledged because of 
size constancy (see Chapter 3, 'Size constancy'). Photographic perspec- 
tive, conditioned by size of reproduction, lens position, distance from 
subject and focal length, appeared to many people to be unnatural and 
distorted compared with perspective used in painting. Usually it was 
'unpainterly' subjects that emphasized what were considered perspec- 
tive distortions. 

Photography aUowed the most accurate reproduction of the most 
minute detail, which incited great interest in the general public even 
though, as one artist claimed, there is no great visual truth in counting 
how many slates there are on an image of a roof. 

Although the eye unconsciously changes focus depending on the 
distance of the subject of interest, the degree of 'out of focus' of sub- 
jects at other distances goes unrecognized. Depending on the aperture 
used, a camera's depth-of-focus produces an image that may blur the 

Past influences 129 

foreground and background of a subject. This photographic zone of 
focus effect created a new visual representation of depth. 

Alternative viewpoints, such as a high angle from a building looking 
down on to a street, appeared to be a photographic innovation unseen 
in painting. The abiUty, with high shutter speeds and extreme magni- 
fication, to reveal visual truths unavailable to normal human percep- 
tion were amongst other photographic innovations that excited 
interest. Even blurred motion and photographic defects such as hala- 
tion provided inspiration for artists such as Corot to experiment with 
new painting conventions. 

The innovation of film technique 

The development of film technique began in 1895/1910 and centred 
around finding methods of changing shot without distracting the audi- 
ence. As we discussed in Chapter 1, a number of 'invisible' techniques 
were discovered and became the standard conventions of film making 
and later television. 

Distinctive compositions that only made sense in the context of the 
film narrative (such as point-of-view shots) occurred pre- 19 14 when 
high and low angles began to be used. This style of composition, 
although not unique to film, was infrequently used in the still photo- 
graphy of the day. 

As we discussed in Chapter 4, 'The lens and perspective', another 
convention that had an important influence on the composition of the 
shot was the 'Vitagraph Angle'. The lens was positioned at eye height, 
then later chest height, and this produced foreground heads of figures 
higher in the frame than background figures. At times the camera was 
positioned at waist height, which resulted in a more dynamic relation- 
ship between foreground and background. These departures from 
head-high lens position also eliminated the large amount of dead 
space above the actors' heads seen in many films of the period. 

Development of TV camera technique 

Standard television multi-camera conventions grew out of film tech- 
nique and the same objectives of disguising technique in order to 
suspend disbelief in the viewer were adopted. The problem for actu- 
ahty television was not to recreate 'real time' as in discontinuous film 
shooting but to meld together multi-camera shooting of an actuality 
event so that, for example, change of camera angle or cutting between 
different shot sizes was not obtrusive and distracting to the viewer. The 
aim once again was towards an 'invisible technique'. 


The origins of contemporary camerawork composition are to be found 
in changes in painting styles over the last 500 years, in the influence of 
still photography and in changes in the style and the technology of film 
and television production. The influence of past solutions to visual 
problems conditions much of current practice. 

Photography in the nineteenth century developed a compositional 
style of the instantaneous framing of an everyday event. The most 

130 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

effective 'freeze frame' images of motion arrested use tlie tension 
between subjects moving apart, and subjects and their relationship 
to their surroundings. When the frame cuts a figure there is the imph- 
cation that the frame position is arbitrary, that the scene is endless and 
a portion of the event just happened to be cut by the frame at that 
point by chance. 

The innovations in film at the beginning of the twentieth century 
and television in the 1950s are still valid and much of the pioneering 
work in the first decades of the twentieth century remains intact in 
current camera technique. 


News and documentary 

Fact and fiction 

A television drama about a military engagement was criticized by an 
army spokesman as being 'too realistic'. The camerawork style was 
indistinguishable from news coverage and the army spokesman com- 
plained that the audience could easily be confused into thinking they 
were watching 'a real event'. 'The Blair Witch Project', another piece 
of fiction, was complimented on its reahstic camerawork treatment. 
The low tech image quahty, the nervous unrehearsed hand-held 
camerawork combined to persuade the audience that they were 
watching an authentic event. 

'Reahstic' in this usage was achieved by imitating the characteristics 
of news coverage. 'The camera surprised by events' has a number of 
visual mannerisms such as rapid reframing, an unsteady frame, 'hose- 
piping' the camera in rapid panning movements in search of the sig- 
nificant event, etc. This 'breaking news' appearance can be reinforced 
by low tech image quality and poor colour rendition (see 'Composition 
styles' in Chapter 12). 

Apart from this type of visual mannerisms, what separates fact and 
fiction camerawork? From the early days of film making, camerawork 
conventions have been used to convince and persuade the intended 
audience of the 'reahty' of the story depicted. The criticism of 'realis- 
tic' camerawork appears to rest on the false assumption that there is 
one set of 'fiction' visual conventions and another set of 'news' visual 
conventions. Although there are diiferences in work practices when 
shooting news such as, for example, less or no control of staging 
subject matter, in general both types of camerawork use a variant of 
invisible technique. What usually confuses some people in identifying 
what is 'real' is that fiction film making has often borrowed certain 
visual 'tics' of news gathering. Orson Welles, in his spoof version of a 
'March of Time' newsreel at the start of 'Citizen Kane' employed 
scratched film, jump cuts and ungraded film to 'authenticate' a news- 
reel appearance. 

132 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

The fashionable view of what is considered realistic camerawork has 
undergone many changes. It was ironic that just as Steadicam was 
evolved to give smooth 360° movement anywhere, the fashion devel- 
oped for unsteady camerawork as a signature of reahsm. Invisible 
technique that is fluid, smooth, unobtrusive camerawork is equated 
with fiction and the highly manufactured commercial commodity pro- 
duced within the traditional conventions of Hollywood. Degrading the 
image and a hand-tooled 'wobbly' shot was seen as returning to the 
basics of reahsm and objectivity. 

Realism and fantasy 

As was discussed in Chapter 2, 'Alternative technique', the argument 
about objective and subjective camera effects were present at the birth 
of film. The Lumiere brothers and Melies provided a template for the 
two opposing views. The choice was between film making as an 
attempt at reahsm - providing the audience with behevable people 
caught up in believable events - or, like MeHes, a fantasy setting of 
a fabulous activity. Film narration has to use a number of basic visual 
conventions in order to ensure that the audience can follow the story. 

The first moving images presented to an audience were Lumiere 
factory workers leaving their place of work, a train arriving at a station, 
etc. These prosaic factual events were soon overtaken by the audience's 
appetite for mystery, action, pace and excitement and the expanding 
film industry in the first quarter of the twentieth century soon learnt 
how to construct shot sequences that engaged the audience's attention. 
These visual conventions of unobtrusive editing and camera movement 
are stiU present in most types of programming, including news. 

But news also has an obHgation to separate fact from opinion, to be 
objective in its reporting and, by selection, to emphasize that which is 
significant to its potential audience. These considerations therefore 
needed to be borne in mind when composing shots for news as well 
as the standard camera technique associated with visual storytelhng. 
There is a trade-off between the need to visually hold the attention of 
the audience and the need to be objective when covering news. Pace, 
action and visual excitement have always been used in film to tell a 
story but, in a news story, these standard techniques cannot be 
employed to capture the audience's attention if they are reconstruc- 
tions. Subjectivity is increased by restaging the event to serve the needs 
of television (e.g., re-enacting significant action that occurred before 
the camera arrived), selecting only 'action' events to record unless 
qualified by a reporter, and the use of standard 'invisible' technique 
editing to produce a partial account of an event. Although there is an 
attempt to avoid these 'entertainment' aspects of storytelling in news 
reportage, they are often unavoidable because of the nature of the 
news item or the demands of attracting viewers. 

Film as illusion 

Whether fact or fiction, all film making is in some way creating an 
illusion. Part of the role of the director or cameraman is find the 

News and documentary 133 

appropriate technique to create a convincing illusion. There are a 
number of ways of achieving this, such as by immersing the audience 
in a story with convincing detail and choosing techniques that do not 
disturb their concentration on content or by convincing the audience 
they are watching an accurate account of reality - news coverage in the 
raw. They may be aware of unsteady camerawork or disjointed con- 
tinuity, etc., but that visual style simply reinforces their belief in the 
authenticity of the event. 

An objective representation of 'reality' in a news, documentary or 
current affairs production uses the same perennial camerawork tech- 
niques as the subjective personal impression or the creation of atmo- 
sphere in fictional films. A football match appears to be a factual 
event whereas music coverage may appear more impressionistic. In 
both types of coverage there is selection and the use of visual con- 
ventions. Footbah uses a mixture of close-ups and wide shots, varia- 
tion of lens height, camera position, cutaways to managers, fans, 
slow motion replays, etc., to inject pace, tension and drama to 
hold the attention of the audience. Music coverage will use similar 
techniques in interpreting the music, but with different rates of pans 
and zooms motivated by the mood and rhythm of the music. If it is a 
pop video, there are no limits to the visual effects the Director may 
feel are relevant. AU camerawork is in one way or another an inter- 
pretation of an event. The degree of subjective personal impression 
fashioning the account will depend on which type of programme it is 
created for. 


Although news aims to be objective and free from the entertainment 
values of standard television storytelhng (e.g., suspense, excitement, 
etc.) it must also aim to engage the audience's attention and keep them 
watching. The trade-off between the need to visually hold the attention 
of the audience and the need to be objective when covering news 
centres on structure and shot composition. 

There are a number of standard shots used in feature work such as a 
canted camera, rapid camera movement, racking focus between speak- 
ers, etc., which appear mannered and subjective when used in new 
coverage. Any composition that appears subjective and impressionistic 
is usually avoided. 

As the popularity of cinema films has shown, an audience enjoys a 
strong story that involves them in suspense and moves them through 
the action by wanting to know 'what happens next?'. This is often 
incompatible with the need for news to be objective and factual. The 
production techniques used for shooting and cutting fiction and fac- 
tual material are almost the same. These visual storytelhng techniques 
have been learned by the audiences from a hfetime of watching fic- 
tional accounts of hfe. The twin aims of communication and engaging 
the attention of the audience apply to news as they do to entertainment 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Record versus comment 









is 4 

. ' 

-- "" 


Figure 11.1 (a) Riot police 
advancing towards the camera; 
the viewer in position of the 
protesters; (b) from the police 
viewpoint facing a cage of 

Whilst news camerawork aims to be simply a record of an event, 
inevitably it becomes a comment on an event. It is comment or opinion 
because choices always have to be made whenever a shot is recorded. 
Apart from the obvious decision on the content of the shot, whether it 
be poUtician, building or crowd, there are also the subtle influences on 
the viewers' perception of the event produced by camera position, 
lighting, lens angle, lens height and camera movement. The camera 
is not an objective optical instrument such as a microscope. In setting 
up a shot, there is considerable scope for influencing the appearance 
and therefore the impact of the image. There is always the temptation 
to find the 'best' composition, even when shooting, for example, the 
effects of poverty and deprivation in city slums. 

A news cameraman arriving to cover a street riot will be unable, at 
first, to understand fully the complexity of the situation. For personal 
safety, he/she can choose to film from behind the police lines or they 
can, if they are sufliciently courageous, get in amongst the protesters 
who are facing the pohce. The camera position they choose will, to 
some extent, colour the response of the viewer. From behind police 
lines the image is of missiles and petrol bombs aimed in the direction 
of the camera. Subjectively the viewer is under attack. The viewpoint 
in amongst the protesters is of a phalanx of police shields, guns and 
batons bearing down on the camera. The viewer is subjectively under 
violent attack from the forces of law and order. Usually there is no 
third choice, such as access to the roof of a building providing a high 
camera position looking down on the street avoiding any partisan 
identification. Even if avaflable, this is an inflexible position that is 
quickly unusable once the point of conflict moves on. The criticism 
sometimes heard about the bias of this type of camera coverage simply 
fails to take into account the impossibihty, in a fast-moving, confused 
situation, of finding a neutral, detached camera viewpoint. Almost 
every shot wfll suggest culpabihty. 

With the development of digital manipulation in video post-produc- 
tion, no shot can be taken as an incontrovertible record of an event. 
The audience's trust in news coverage is based more on standard news 
conventions - the appearance of an item - than an absolute faith in the 
information provided. 

Operational awareness 

It is easy to believe that aU one requires to be a good news cameraman 
is an understanding of technology, technique and an appreciation of 
news programmes' customary styles. But news camerawork requires a 
fourth essential ingredient, the ability to professionally respond to 
sudden violent, unforeseen, spontaneous events and provide shots 
that can be edited to provide an informative news item. Keeping a 
cool head and providing competent coverage is the opposite to the 
often seen amateur video accounts of dramatic events where the cam- 
era is hose-piped aU over the scene in a panic response to action that 
surprised the operator. News stories are often shot in real time with no 
opportunity (or requirement) to influence what is happening. The news 

News and documentary 135 

cameraman must immediately respond to the occurrence in front of 
the lens and make spht-second decisions about composition, what to 
frame and where to capture the significant shots. Essentially, news 
camerawork is looking for things moving or in the process of change. 
A shot of a closed door and curtained windows of a house where a 
siege is taking place can only be held on screen for a very short time 
and requires the supporting coverage of the flurry of activity that is 
taking place in the surrounding area. 

Realistic cameraworl< 

Reahsm in film is that attitude that is opposed to 'expressionism'. 
Realism emphasizes the subject as opposed to the director's view of 
the subject. Expressionism or any form of fiction narrative can make 
any juxtaposition of images achieve either an expression of the film 
maker or to move, affect and provoke an effect in the audience. There 
is no limit to how fantastic a film narrative can be. There are no agreed 
restraints on technique or form, although there are social concerns 
about the effects of pornographic and violent subject matter. 

'Reahsm', on the other hand, is attempting to be objective - to 
remove the conditioning influence of its creator. There are competing 
definitions of what it means to be 'objective' and factual film makers 
are expected not to fabricate an event. Does this mean avoiding any 
influence on the subject of the film? Is the presence of the camera 
an influence? Would the material be different if the camera was not 

There are always two influences at work on any sequence of shots. 
Firstly, there are the requirements of the film and television form - the 
mechanics of the media. In some way, the audience has to see and hear 
what is being presented. Secondly, the personal subjectivity of the film 
maker - his or her creative ambitions and viewpoint are difficult to 
eradicate. The fingerprint of their aims and intentions will somehow be 

It is not possible to remove all traces of the creative decision making 
in film. For example, the 'found' form of a piece of driftwood on the 
beach is selected when it is picked up and taken to be displayed. 
Aesthetic values have been exercised. A choice has been made. Some 
productions avoid making these decisions and leave the camera run- 
ning and the framing to chance. The images cannot be free of all 
subjective decision making because simply recording and placing the 
camera in a position conditions the appearance of the shot. A surveil- 
lance camera has a number of prearranged factors affecting the way 
the shot looks. How 'reahstic' is the security camera system in a super- 

There is in fact a new lust for authenticity - no interpretation, just a 
flat statement of reahty. Standard programme production, particularly 
on crime, has been able to achieve increasing standards of glossiness 
that is in contrast to actuality footage. 

Surveillance cameras provide the jolt of raw footage that is unme- 
diated - a direct access to the real without modification. There are 
compilation programmes featuring cameras in police car chases, city 
centre fixed cameras of street crime, etc. This 'reahty' TV also includes 

136 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

secret filming and the self-documentation of video diaries. The very 
roughness of surveillance images guarantees total authenticity. The 
appeal of this video reahty TV is that it is perceived as real - it is 
not re-creation. New technology can go where TV cameras have never 
been before. 

Secret filming allows evidence to be collected that is obtainable by 
no other method - it is an unglamorous version of crime. Its raw 
appearance feels closer to reahty. How something was shot becomes 
more important than the reason it was shot. The stylized conventions 
of secret filming and the imitation of raw footage such as 'grained up' 
images, converting colour images to black and white, shaky camera- 
work and the appearance of voyeurism is a developed programme 

Technology as an aid to 'realism' 

The invention of film and the projection of life-sized figures was pro- 
claimed by the Lumiere brothers as 'hfe on the run' - a greater reahsm 
than could be achieved with stiU photography. Movement and screen 
size enhanced the ihusion. Later sound, and then colour and stereo 
sound, expanded the experience. Cinerama claimed 'it creates aU the 
illusion of reality . . . you see things the way you do in real hfe not only 
in front of you as in conventional motion pictures, but also out of the 
corners of your eyes . . . you hear with the same startling realism'. 

As we mentioned in Chapter 7, 'The shape of the screen', the giant 
screen size and stereo were used mainly as novelty attractions. They 
were seen as an experience in themselves rather than at the service of 
realistic storytelling. The development of stereo sound, colour and 
widescreen were identified with spectacle. 

Documentary programmes 

The definition of what is a documentary depends on where people 
position themselves in this debate. The word 'documentary' was 
coined by a group of British film makers in the 1930s who were aiming 
to change the audience's perception about other people's lives. Over 
time, the word has changed in meaning and, to most audiences, 'doc- 
umentary' implies visual factual evidence that is a truthful record of an 
event or activity. 

The early British documentary makers often foUowed John 
Grierson's famous definition of documentary as being 'the creative 
treatment of actuahty'. But the concept that truth can be creatively 
interpreted aUows considerable latitude in how visual factual evidence 
is produced. In the 1930s and 1940s, bulky 35-mm film equipment 
made substantial reconstruction and restaging almost inevitable. In 
his documentary 'Drifters', Grierson built a trawler deckhouse on 
land and then got genuine fishermen to recreate their normal seagoing 
activities. It is claimed that Robert Flaherty, following the activities of 
Nanook, an Eskimo, wanted a very much larger igloo built to accom- 
modate interior shots. The traditional igloo had obviously an opti- 

News and documentary 137 

mum functional design size because the roof of a larger constructed 
igloo collapsed. 

Another British documentary film maker, Paul Rotha, identified a 
distinction between news and documentary by suggesting that news 
cameramen 'make no effort to approach their subjects from a creative 
or dramatic point of view other than those of plain description', 
whereas documentary cameramen must be 'poets of the camera'. 
This early auteur theory (film as the exclusive creation of one person), 
suggests that documentary is the artistic vision of one man. 

In the 1950s, French anthropologists' use of the film camera as a 
'scientific' recording instrument led to the development of the portable 
16-mm camera with synch sound. There was a growing awareness of 
the influence the observer has on the subject. A famous example, 
before the documentary movement began, was of the study of working 
conditions at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant in Illinois in 1927, 
which discovered that output increased on the production fine not only 
when, for example, fighting conditions were improved but also when 
they were made worse. The fact of being studied, rather than the 
experimental factors being manipulated, had caused the workers to 

Observation, with or without a camera, affects the subject being 
observed. Once people become aware of being watched, their beha- 
viour is altered. There can be no disinterested bystander with a camera 
who does not in some way affect the behaviour of their attention. In 
the 1960s, the American documentary film makers loosely grouped 
under the title of Direct Cinema were confident that they could remain 
detached from their subject. Liberated by the go-anywhere film equip- 
ment they suggested they were simply an uninvolved bystander at the 
'filmed event'. Their claim of non-intervention with their subject was 
hard to substantiate. Any documentary maker has to select a subject, a 
camera viewpoint and then edit the material. These are all areas where 
personal preconceptions, knowledge and attitude can influence choice 
in addition to the effect of the filming process on the participants. 

At the same time, across the Atlantic, the French Cinema- Verite 
documentary movement were doubtful if the subjective attitudes of a 
film maker could remain detached from his/her work. Jean Luc- 
Goddard suggested that the quest for uncontaminated reportage 
throws away the two most important assets of a film maker - intelfi- 
gence and sensitivity. 

Some French film makers deliberately put themselves in their doc- 
umentaries because they beheved their influence was always present. It 
is like a cameraman filming in a fairground Hah of Mirrors. At some 
stage, whichever way you point the camera, you are bound to get 
yourself into shot. Sometimes you will be sharply recognized and 
sometimes you film a distorted image of yourself It is impossible to 
film/video a sequence without the originator's fingerprints appearing 
somewhere on a shot. The man/woman behind the camera can never 
keep him/herself out of shot. 

Many people attempt to show things 'as they really are', but film/ 
video as straightforward documentary truthful evidence is always 
suspect because: 

• the film or tape is a representation and is not equivalent to the 
actual event filmed. Converting three-dimensions into a flat image 

138 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

converts an event into a replication of that event. The two are not 

• the camera is not an impartial scientific instrument that provides a 
truthful record of the subject. Lens, film tape stock and camera 
position all colour the truthfulness of the record; 

• the camera operator and then editor exert conscious and subcon- 
scious influences. They put themselves between the subject and the 
viewer and cannot be eliminated from the frame. 


The packaging of 'facts' in an attempt to attract and keep a mass 
audience occurs in news, current affairs and documentaries, but the 
'package' of technique is usually so well disguised or so famihar that it 
is not intrusive. The disquiet felt by some people is when a highly 
dramatic and sometimes life-threatening event is recorded by a news 
crew with no one from the television organization attempting to inter- 
vene or assist those in distress. It exposes the implications of adopting 
the role of professional 'looker-on', indifferent or detached from sub- 
ject matter, and also the extent to which the illusion-making technique 
that has sustained countless fictional entertainments can be employed 
in the presentation of 'real' events. 

There is the example of an ENG crew who videotaped a woman 
strugghng for her Hfe in an icy river after surviving a plane crash. This 
ENG crew even captured the moment when a bystander leapt into the 
water and rescued her. Or, in the most extreme example, the camera- 
man who stood his ground and zoomed out to contain the 'action' of a 
Vietnamese child running towards the camera, screaming and 
immersed in flame. 

The convention in television is that the broadcast organization dele- 
gates responsibiUty for content to a few individuals, removing the 
majority of employees from any public accountabihty for the effect 
of their work. It is considered that market forces wifl take care of any 
lapse in taste. Give the public what it wants, it is suggested, and they 
wifl either watch and endorse the choice or switch to another channel. 
There is also, in many countries, the safety net of government- 
appointed regulatory bodies that require the companies to comply 
with certain codes of political balance, avoidance of offensive material, 
etc. The broadcast system would therefore appear to have sufficient 
safeguards to eliminate any moral dilemma that a crew may have in 
not assisting those in distress. 

Professional 'looking-on' would appear to be a mandate for non- 
involvement with people 'out there' in front of the camera - a suspen- 
sion of personal responsibihty to act and the surrendering to the 
employing organization the task of evaluating the morality of any 
particular situation. A dispensation is claimed for the professional 
'news collector' so that he/she may stand outside the event and objec- 
tively report. Whatever is happening, the news cameraman has, in one 
sense, a professional vested interest to see that it continues until he/she 
has got the essential material. Crews wfll struggle through blizzards 
and will be the first to arrive at snowed-in viUages but they will bring 
no food or other essential supphes. They will search for possible suf- 

News and documentary 139 

faring, hardship, death or even cheerful 'community spirit' stories and 
then leave with a 'factual' report. If the inhabitants are fortunate 
enough to have their electricity reconnected they can watch a replay 
of the triumphant arrival of the crew on the evening news. 

The broadcast employee is cushioned and actively encouraged to 
make no moral judgements about his professional activity. Machine- 
like, he is programmed to be a neutral transmitter of messages and he 
either takes the money or resigns. The accolade 'professional' is in fact 
often used in television to describe, amongst other quahties, the abihty 
to meet a deadhne within budget, to satisfy standards and the values of 
fellow practitioners but, above all, to preserve some degree of objec- 
tivity and detachment. This is also interpreted as the ability to give the 
best possible presentation of subject matter that engages the interest of 
the audience whilst avoiding commitment or bias. But this profes- 
sional detachment cannot be compared with that of, say, a doctor, 
who although he may avoid identifying with the suffering of his patient 
is nevertheless required to avoid administering poison or harming his 

It is unlikely that the crew who clambered over the wreckage of a 
train to get the close-up of the driver's face just before his leg was 
amputated to free him would have gone there to stare unless they had 
a camera between themselves and the event. This special dispensation 
for the professional 'looker-on' allows such material as the expression 
on the train driver's face before he loses his leg and is endorsed by the 
news editor as of 'human interest', or of news value. Exploitation of 
grief and suffering is certainly not unique to television. Pubhc execu- 
tions were very popular (and still are in some countries) until abol- 
ished. Possibly the same frisson is still available in the comfort of our 
own homes when we look into the eyes of a drowning woman as she 
desperately scrabbles for safety in icy water and legitimize it by calhng 
it news. It is this extra quality of vivid immediacy of news film that is 
particularly sought for and endorsed as having great 'human interest'. 
Watching a person die or suffer extreme emotion is sanctioned by 
appeahng to 'news values'. But if the audience makes a trip to the 
scene of the disaster instead of watching it on television in order to 
catch a glimpse (in the distance) of the same victim, it brings down the 
full self-righteous wrath of journahsm and denouncements of 'ghoul- 
ish rubber necking' and 'sick voyeurism'. 

There is in broadcasting a behef that a mass audience is attracted 
and held by production techniques that relay an experience of an event 
rather than analysis. Instant access to the 'real' is in demand, it is 
suggested, as long as it is highly packaged within the conventions 
derived from fiction films. This results in the search for impact to 
grab the audience and hyping the 'real' has not only borrowed all 
the standard entertainment conventions but has invented a few of its 

A round-up programme of the day's sport becomes not the selected 
'highlights' of a football match but an entertainment package of slow 
motion replays, personalities, comment and the collapse of real time to 
produce an interpretation of an event that is entirely different from the 
experience of a spectator at that event. The search for good 'factual' 
television, equalhng popular television, equalHng large audience, often 
runs the risk, in using the narrative conventions of fiction films, of 
obliterating the truthful representation of the event. 

140 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Engaging the attention of the audience 

The 'fly on the waU' technique claims to have the least eifect on the 
participants, but one policeman, commenting on a police document- 
ary series, complained that TV fictional crime series have 50 minutes 
to solve their crimes in order to fit a TV schedule. Real police work 
is boring, repetitive, with hours, days and weeks of routine before a 
result (or sometimes no result), and yet the edited version of the 
police documentary runs 50 minutes of 'highhghts' - it has more 
action than the non-fictional equivalent. The producer of the docu- 
mentary justified the trimming out and heightening up of action on 
the basis that it would bore the viewer if repetitive, extended police 
routine was presented in its entirety. He elected to give a flavour of 
poUce procedures. This interpreting an event, giving a 'flavour', is 
not a mirror held up to actuality, as is sometimes claimed for this 
approach, but a creation in television terms of an event. It involves 
considerable decision and selection of material and, when those deci- 
sions are biased in favour of mass entertainment techniques such as 
pace, action, tension and impact, then reahty becomes packaged in 
formula film conventions. This soon deteriorates into the recycling of 
cliches and stereotypes; the fictionalizing of reahty to fit the conven- 
tions of a thousand movies. In fact the highest endorsement some 
people can give to the vividness of an event they have experienced is 
that 'it was just like a movie'. 

It is suggested that television has turned its audience into 'image 
junkies' where endless newsreels of horror and spectacle are consumed 
at an alarming rate. Each new shock horror image de-sensitizing feel- 
ing and raising the ante for audience response. Possibly the danger of 
hyping the 'real' is not in the confusion experienced by the viewer who 
begins to expect the same production and entertainment values in the 
storming of a terrorist-held embassy as they experience with a Bond 
film, but in the ambition of programme makers, seeking large audi- 
ences, who appear to have dehberately blurred the programme distinc- 
tion between fact and fiction. 

American writer John Knightly in his book The First Casualty 
describes how Gls in Vietnam acted out the 'John Wayne' walk of 
Hollywood war movies when they saw CBS newsreel cameras arrive. 
They were filmed doing this and no doubt viewers, when they saw this 
footage, were convinced that this was a 'real' event. With hfe imitating 
'art' there may be a new category for an Oscar - best dramatic 
performance in a news bulletin. 


Although there are differences in work practices when shooting news 
such as, for example, less or no control of staging subject matter, in 
general both news and fiction camerawork use a variant of invisible 

AU camerawork is in one way or another an interpretation of an 
event. The degree of subjective personal impression fashioning the 
account will depend on which type of programme it is created for. 

News and documentary 141 

In news camerawork, compositions that appear mannered or 
subjective (e.g., a canted camera) are avoided but composition still 
influences impartiality. 

It is often impossible in a fast-moving, confused news story to find a 
neutral detached camera viewpoint. 

News camerawork requires the ability to professionally respond to 
sudden violent, unforeseen, spontaneous events and provide shots that 
can be edited to provide an informative news item. 

Observation, with or without a camera, aifects the subject being 
observed. Once people become aware of being watched, their beha- 
viour is altered. There can be no disinterested bystander with a camera 
who does not in some way affect the behaviour of the subject/s of their 


Composition styles 

Visual styles 

There are a range of film styles as distinct, for example, as Laurence 
Olivier's 'Henry V and Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity', which were 
both made in the same year (1944). Olivier achieved a formalism based 
on sets designed with the colour and perspective of mediaeval illustra- 
tions, whilst Wilder's visual style is often based on film noir's low-key 
lighting and night shooting on wet, rain-streaked roads. Camerawork 
styles and visual imagery are not always influenced by contemporary 
fashion. The above two films, made in diiferent countries, had two 
very distinct visual styles. To detail fully the variety of styles that 
have originated in the history of film and television would require a 
separate book. Below are just a few examples of diiferent approaches 
to compositional styles. 

The dominant influence on the look of the film is usually the direc- 
tor, although often the director of photography or production 
designer have a significant input. Styles of camerawork technique 
range from the standard storytelling coverage designed as an uncom- 
plicated, undemanding entertainment that keeps faith with the expec- 
tations of most of its potential audience, to productions that 
completely reject conventional visual codes and favour an indirect 
and obHque presentation. This 'alternative technique' has been dis- 
cussed in Chapter 2. 

Style and technique 

Visual style may rely on the repetition of visual motifs such as long 
focal length lenses condensing space, as for example, in John Altman's 
film 'Short Cuts' (1993), in order to provide an impression of 
American suburban claustrophobia. The same film uses another visual 
motif with long zooms, but change in image size is motivated and 
disguised by the action such as Earl Piggot's (John Waite) entrance 

Composition styles 143 

to the cafe where his wife Doreen (Lily TomaUn) works, or the steady 
zoom movement towards a telephone that repeatedly rings. These 
styUstic flourishes are achieved within the standard conventions of 
invisible technique. 

In 'Tokyo Story' (1953), Yasujiro Ozu consistently uses a low cam- 
era height, equivalent to the eye height of someone seated on the floor, 
shooting a medium shot of two, three or four people. There is one 
small camera movement in the two hours fifteen minutes of the film. 
Although it has a very distinctive style, that style is again achieved 
mainly within the invisible technique conventions. These two films 
have a very different visual appearance created by the director's choice 
of lens angle, camera movement, camera height and camera distance 
when shooting the majority of scenes. 

Not afl productions consistently follow one style of shooting. A 
television cookery programme may introduce into a very prosaic pre- 
sentation a few swerving camera movements to suggest the breathless 
excitement of unrehearsed news coverage. Of course, everything about 
filming the cookery demonstration is under the complete control of the 
producer/director, but the camera style imphes that 'reahty' is being 
recorded without production control. 'Life' is being captured on the 

Style becomes content 

Style sometimes overwhelms a weak narrative and becomes the domin- 
ant interest of the film. Exaggerated style elements such as the con- 
tinuous use of a wide-angle distorting lens make the world less natural 
and will distance the viewer from the narrative. The audience will 
become less involved with the protagonists but may enjoy the styHstic 

Style building blocks 

The style of a film or television programme can be influenced by any of 
the skills and crafts of the people that are involved in its production, 
such as the script treatment, artiste's performance, editing, sound- 
track, music, etc. They aU play a part in shaping the style of the 
production. This chapter will concentrate on the camerawork contri- 

There are a number of standard styles and camerawork conventions 
inherited from the past. The history of film and TV is one of innova- 
tion and change enhancing a body of standard technique. In general, 
the look of a film or TV production is created by the treatment of 
space, light, camera movement, choice of lens, colour or shot struc- 
ture. The changes and variations in these visual building blocks are 
influenced by: 

• technological development - screen shape, lightweight cameras, new 
film stock, Steadicam, etc.; 

• lighting styles and fashion - e.g., reahstic or expressionistic; 

• choice of lens and camera placement - naturalistic or stylized com- 

• camera movement - invisible or obtrusive, pace of movement; 

144 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

• the staging of the artistes - juxtaposition of foreground and back- 
ground people or things - small depth or wide depth; 

• choice of studio or location shooting; 

• monochrome and colour application; 

• shot structure and editing - camera movement to explain narrative 
or cutting to follow action. 

Technological development 

The changes and innovation in cameras, camera mountings, film 
stock, lighting equipment, sound, post-production and electronic pro- 
cessing have had an enormous impact on what is possible in produc- 
tion. Sometimes it appears as if technical change stimulates new styles 
(e.g., portable video cameras, Steadicam, etc.). Sometimes a problem 
finds a solution in a technical breakthrough (e.g., the exchange of TV 
productions in different electronic standards solved by digital conver- 
sion). Film and TV are only possible through technology. Technology 
and technique intertwine. How you do something in camerawork is 
dependent on what equipment you are using. It is not simply a ques- 
tion of being told which button to press in order to get a professional 

In television camerawork, for example, an understanding of camera 
technology plus the ability to exploit and take into consideration the 
attributes of the camera and the lens characteristics are the basis of 
practical programme production. Although television and film pro- 
duction can only be created with technology, there seems to be a 
growing trend to ignore the mechanics and simply trust auto-technique 
features. In an age of de-skilhng, euphemistically called multiskilling, 
most video equipment is now wrapped up with auto-features in the 
hope of being user-friendly to technophobic customers, but camera- 
men usually understand what is happening when they are operating 
equipment rather than the uninformed passively pressing a button and 
hoping the equipment 'wiU do the rest'. 

One of the enduring characteristics of film and television broad- 
casting is that it is in a continuous state of change. New equipment, 
new techniques, new outlets are introduced almost annually. Each 
change in technology requires evaluation in order to understand how 
it can be exploited in production. Keeping up with change is a 
crucial requirement otherwise old skills will be as redundant as old 

As we discussed in the chapters on widescreen, some types of new 
technology are taken up whereas others are ignored. It may be mis- 
leading to believe that the methods of production are simply 'given', 
but often new technology stimulates new styles just as the quest for 
new technique stimulates technological innovation. The lightweight 
portable video camera enabled 'hot head' camera booms to be devel- 
oped that allowed much more fluid movement compared with manned 
cameras (see Chapter 16, 'Movement'), just as in the late 1950s/early 
1960s the introduction of ring-steer pedestals in television studios 
enabled more complex camerawork and greater mobility in smaller 
sets that coincided with the new fashion for realistic 'kitchen sink' 
dramas staged in smaU sets. 

Composition styles 145 

Lighting styles 

See Chapter 13, section on lighting technique. 

Ciioice of lens and camera placement 

Film director Sidney Lumet claimed that the (focal) length of the lens 
is the director's most fundamental camera choice. As we discussed in 
Chapter 4, 'The lens and perspective', choosing the camera distance 
from the main subject and the focal length of the lens to be used not 
only decides the size of the shot, but also controls the depiction of 
depth and the 'internal' space of the shot. These two aspects of style - 
size of shot and the depiction of depth - have had many different 
treatments in the history of film. 

Lens angle and focal length 

Firstly, when discussing film and television camerawork, it is better to 
use lens angle rather than the focal length of a lens. Lens angle or angle 
of view is related to the focal length of the lens and the format size of 
the pick-up sensor, whether it be CCD or a frame of film. As we 
discussed in Chapter 7, for some time there was a universal film 
frame that was either 35 mm or 16 mm. Widescreen processes and 
innovations such as super 16 mm added to the number of frame 
sizes when calculating angle of view. 

Television cameras have had as many different pick-up frame sizes 
as film, and from an early time in TV history it became customary not 
to quote focal length to indicate the size of shot obtainable from a lens, 
but its angle of view. When discussing the depiction of depth and 
perspective, either in film or television, identifying the angle of view 
of a specific lens wiU provide a better guidance of the lens/camera 
distance effect. 

For example, a lens less than 35 mm focal length (35°) on a 35 mm 
film camera may be considered a wide-angle lens. The same focal 
length lens on a 2/3" video camera would have a lens angle of approxi- 
mately 14°. It would need a 14 mm lens to match the 35 mm lens on a 
35 mm camera. A medium lens angle on all cameras would range from 
35° to 25°. A narrow angle of view (a long focal length lens) would 
range from 17° to less than 3°. There is no scientific basis for the 
boundaries of these categories - simply custom and practice. To 
avoid confusion, state the angle of view in degrees rather than the 
dimension of the focal length of a lens. 

In the early days of film making, 25°-17° approximate (50 mm- 
75 mm) lenses were routinely employed, although longer lenses were 
sometimes used. As was mentioned in Chapter 4, American silent film 
production at the beginning of the twentieth century used a conven- 
tion of a 25° lens at eye level and actor movement was restricted to 
being no closer to the lens than 12 ft. With an actor standing 12 ft 
from the lens, the bottom of the frame cuts him at knee height. By 
1910, the Vitagraph company allowed the actors to play up to 9 ft 
from the lens and the camera was lowered to chest height. This con- 
vention produced a distinct visual depiction of depth. 

Not only lens angle and camera distance but depth-of-field also 
gives indications of space. The development of the close-up on a longer 

146 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

lens set at an aperture that threw the background out of focus became 
a staple style convention. 

As film technology evolved with faster film speeds and more efficient 
lighting, it was possible, if desired, to have a much greater depth-of- 
field and, when staging in depth, to have aU the artistes in sharp focus. 
Deep focus shots were a feature of Greg Toland's work on 'Citizen 
Kane', released in the spring of 1941. He used the hard hght of arc 
lamps that had been used for Technicolour in the mid-1930s, the new 
faster film stock and coated lenses which allowed an /ho that could 
hold foreground close-ups and background figures in focus. Many of 
the deep focus shots, however, were achieved by back projection, 
optical tricks or special effects. 

Staging in depth became a feature of the 1940s and 1950s up to the 
expansion of colour and the use of anamorphic lenses for widescreen. 
The standard CinemaScope lens provided for a 46° angle (50 mm), but 
equivalent to 16.5° (30 mm) in normal 35 mm format. Colour film was 
less sensitive than the faster black and white stock and deep focus was 
restricted to exteriors because of the high hghting levels required for 
larger /nos in the studio. As mentioned in Chapter 8, early widescreen 
films were composed with artistes staged across the frame rather than 
in depth. A common aperture setting in the early years of widescreen 
was/2.8. With focus on artistes at 10 ft, depth-of-field extended from 
8 ft to 12 ft. Any foreground MCU would have been out of focus. 

As colour film increased in speed, a full range of lenses could be used 
ranging from 3° to 60°. In the 1980s and 1990s longer lenses were used 
as the fashion for following action on tight shots became popular. A 
major influence of this style was the Japanese director Akira Kurasawa 
who, in his monochrome 1950s films, used long focal length lenses on 
battle scenes. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, many countries converted their TV services 
to colour. The standard four lens turret on a monochrome camera, 
which had a range of lenses of typically 9°, 16°, 24° and 35°, was 
replaced with a zoom lens. In the following decades the zoom range 
improved from 10:1 up to 50:1 and decreased minimum object distance 
(MOD) to hold sharp focus. This was particularly vital in studio pro- 
ductions and, with some zooms, the MOD was decreased from 3 m 
down to 0.5 m. Using a wide-angle lens with the camera close to the 
action produced accelerated action and movement. It was also popular 
for depicting a surreal, distorted view of everyday 'reality'. 


Depth-of-field is the term used to describe the range of acceptable 
focus in a shot. It is a function of camera aperture and the distance 
of the main subject from the camera. A small depth-of-field created by 
wide open aperture and a narrow lens angle, for example, is a useful 
compositional device for separating foreground subject from back- 
ground. Because of its lack of background detail, if this style is used 
continuously it gives very little information to the audience about 
setting or location. Withholding information about the 'geography' 
of the action creates mystery and is more expressionistic than a large 
depth-of field that provides more information and appears to be more 
'reahstic'. If the director wishes to provide a shot to explain the loca- 

Composition styles 147 

tion of the action, he/she would most hkely use a medium lens angle 
(25°-40°) as a scene-setter. 

The depth-of-field of a shot will control the staging of the perfor- 
mers. A large depth-of-field wiU allow staging in depth unless it is 
possible to rack focus between foreground and background. This is 
usually achieved, for example, by being sharply in focus on a fore- 
ground performer who turns to a background artiste. The focus is 
racked back to this character on the turn of the head. Racking focus 
can be used in a number of ways in a shot but, to be effective, it 
requires a narrow depth-of-field to provide a significant change in 
focus and motivating action to trigger the focus shift. Throwing the 
focus to different parts of the frame changes compositional emphasis 
without reframing. 

The sensitivity of the film stock has varied over the years. After 1940 
panchromatic film stock was more sensitive than previous orthocro- 
matic film and allowed a black and white fashion for staging in depth. 
The wider the film gauge the less depth-of-field and the introduction of 
widescreen and less sensitive colour stock produced a small depth-of- 
field that required shallow staging to hold focus. This lasted until 
colour negative film improved in speed. 

In television, the same decrease in depth-of-field occurred with the 
introduction of colour until colour cameras improved their sensitivity. 
The depth-of-field in studio productions is conditioned by lighting 
levels. A smaller depth-of-field is often created for dramatic effect 
but large depth-of-field is often a convention of entertainment shows 
with large glossy sets. Many television productions feature unre- 
hearsed and spontaneous events. Rapid shot change requires rapid 
focus and if the cameraman cannot predict the direction of movement 
a larger depth-of-field helps in following focus. On a narrow-angle lens 
this is only of marginal help. 

Camera movement 

A changing viewpoint is one of the unique features of film and televi- 
sion. It aUows the spectator to travel through space and take up a new 
vantage point. A camera movement into a scene takes the audience 
into the film 'space'. The use of camera movement to create a film style 
has taken many forms, from the 10-minute single takes of Hitchcock 
where the camera moved through sets that were peeled away hke an 
onion to allow access, to the fluid lens of contemporary Steadicam 
technique. Camera movement is another crucial element of image 
making and is dealt with in Chapter 16. 

Staging the artistes 

The Dustin Hoffman character in 'Tootsie' (1982) was reproached by 
his agent for causing trouble on a commercial shoot. 'But I was 
dressed as a tomato in that commercial', he protested, 'Tomatoes 
don't sit down'. How and when performers move, sit, stand or handle 
props is often a contentious topic on a film or TV set. There is often 
actor movement required to justify a camera move and there is move- 
ment that the actors feel is necessary for their performance. Staging a 
performer/presenter, that is, where they stand or move whether in a 

148 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

factual or a fiction production is a crucial part of the look or style of 
the shot. 

There have been a number of different fashions in staging styles 
from the spread-across-the-frame shots of silent movies to the elabo- 
rate foreground and background choreography of staging in depth. 
Staging and its relationship to composition is discussed in more detail 
in Chapter 15. 

Studio or location sliooting 

Although it would appear that location backgrounds would be 
cheaper than constructed scenery in a studio, it has often been the 
case in the past that a studio complex, hke factories, needs a through- 
put of productions to cover the cost of premises and permanent staff. 
Television studio complexes for many years handled drama and soaps 
almost on a production belt system, with overnight 'set and fight' to 
facilitate rapid turnaround of the facifities. Smafi crews manning port- 
able video cameras allowed drama productions to move out of tfie 
studios onto the streets. This often coincided with a production desire 
to be more 'reafistic'. In tfie past, tfie Hollywood studio production 
often favoured a very stylized appearance tfiat maximized tfie glamor- 
ous presentation of its stars. Tfie fuU-time tecfinicians employed by tfie 
studios were very skilled at tfiis form of presentation (see Lighting and 
composition. Chapter 13). Even those films with considerable exterior 
scenes would be shot entirely in a studio in order to control costs and 
be close to the watchful eye of management. 

A change in storytelfing and type of story appeared in tfie 1950s 
wfien feature films took to tfie streets witfi productions sucfi as 'Panic 
in the Streets' (1950). Of course, silent comedies had been out on the 
streets 30 years before, whether it was Laurel and Hardy moving a 
piano up a very long flight of stairs or the Keystone Cops causing 
traffic havoc in comedy chases. The gritty reafism of 'Panic in tfie 
Streets' could only be captured at real locations, often with actuality 
ligfiting. No set could ever fiave tfie patina of use of an actual bar. 
Costume drama often faces the same problem when it tries to repro- 
duce 'poverty' clothing. It is possible to dirty down cloth to make it 
grimy and stained but it is impossible to reproduce the threadbare and 
worn appearance of clothing that has had a lifetime of wear. 

Shot structure and editing 

Editing fias such a significant effect on a production that it requires a 
separate chapter. See Chapter 17. 

Stylistic flourishes 

There are a number of styfistic 'flourisfies' that occur across the history 
of film and television. Often they enjoy a brief popularity before falling 
into disuse. Then suddenly, in a retro revival, they have a brief renais- 
sance. Amongst the more common effects are: 

Composition styles 149 

• flare - the deliberate introduction of degradation across tlie frame 
caused by sun or hard Hght source. The cinematographer on 'Easy 
Rider' said the studio previously would not let them use flare and 
always wanted well exposed films because of drive-in audiences; 

• fllters - there is a wide range of filter eff"ects from diff"usion to high 

• smoke - acts as a three-dimensional filter allowing hght to be 
shown, e.g., a beam of sunhght, etc.; 

• canted camera - the Dutch tilt or canted camera has had various 
revivals over time. Carol Reed was a great exponent of the canted 
camera in 'Odd Man Out' (1946) and 'The Third Man' (1949). 
Also in canted low angles; 

• pulsed zooms - the zoom is rapidly zoomed in and out many times, 
sometimes on the beat of the music in a music video. As an effect it 
was superseded by the flexibihty of digital effects, although sharp 
jittery zoom pulls are often used in alternative, punk style - see 

• freeze frame - one of the most famous freeze frames was at the end 
of Frangois Truflfaut's 'Les Quatre Cents Coups' (1959) but as a 
styhstic flourish it has been used in many films; 

• whip pan - the whip pan has a long tradition and is stiU seen in 
contemporary films; 

• vignettes - opening and closing circle vignettes were a feature of 
silent films and are usually employed as a styhstic reference to their 
period of film making; 

• wipes, etc. - wiping to a new scene or image is mainly used in 
television, although film travelogues at one time made frequent 
use of the wipe. 

There are a number of other visual conventions such as montage, 
etc., which are dealt with below in specific styles. 

Multi-camera live television conventions 

Film is a record of an event edited and assembled after the event 
occurs. Live television is a presentation of an event as it occurs. The 
unique quality of an electronic camera is its abihty to produce a pic- 
ture that can be instantly transmitted. This entails a production tech- 
nique that involves a number of people perfecting their individual 
contribution in a production group simultaneously as the event is 
transmitted. To coordinate such a group activity, it is essential to 
plan and have some measure of rehearsal before transmission or to 
rely on standard production conventions that are understood by 
everyone involved. 

Standard television multi-camera conventions grew out of film tech- 
nique and the same objective of disguising technique in order to sus- 
pend disbehef in the viewer was adopted. The problem for actuality 
television was not to recreate 'real time' as in discontinuous film shoot- 
ing but to combine a number of camera viewpoints of an actuahty 
event so that, for example, change of camera angle or cutting between 
different shot sizes was not obtrusive and distracting to the viewer. The 
aim once again was towards an 'invisible technique'. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 12.1 Multi-camera studio 

Television camerawork tradition includes multi-camera shooting, 
rapid production techniques and continuous, impromptu framing 
adjustments. It may seem paradoxical to suggest that speed and flex- 
ibihty may be just as rigid a convention as any dogmatic rule but, 
because of the need for a 'conveyor belt' production technique in 
programme making, productions continually rely on quick workable 
technique and reject or avoid innovation that may be time-consuming 
or unfamiliar. Speed of application is a convention and a necessity but 
frequently leads to shot compositions that have some 'rough edges' 
that have never been fully resolved, owing to the shortage of rehearsal/ 
recording time. 

The roots of this multi-camera tradition began with the constraints 
of live television. Live television had all the advantages of immediacy - 
as it happened so you saw it. Sport, quiz, discussion or drama were 
sliced up and presented by continuous camera coverage. Production 
techniques were pioneered, shaped and perfected to accommodate any 
event that could be staged in or out of a television studio. Lacking the 
ability to edit, every event dictated its own timescale. If a writhing 
footballer in a live match took two minutes to 'act out' that every 
bone in his body was broken, then every second of his agony was 
faithfully transmitted. Whilst a more legitimate actor in a multi-cam- 
era drama might benefit from a continuity of performance similar to 
his experience in the theatre, the cameraman's activity often reflected 
the tempo of the production varying from frantic haste to beat the cue 

Composition styles 151 

light, to a leisurely pull out from the ringing phone to allow actors 
from the previous set to scuttle in under the lens, seat themselves and 
look, as they came into shot, as if they had been waiting for that 
particular phone call for hours. The premier advantage of television 
compared with film was that it reached an enormous number of people 
instantaneously. It was also cheaper. 

Five, 30-minute 'soap' episodes could, within five studio days, be 
rehearsed and recorded at a fraction of the cost of a similar length 
feature film. There was no point in comparing film with television, they 
were different animals. Soap drama is topical and consumed like a 
daily newspaper whereas a feature film has a much longer commercial 
fife to recover its financial and creative investment. 

Multi-camera television drama is anchored to the clock. If an actor 
takes ten paces to cross the set, then in some way that time duration 
will have to be accommodated by the camera coverage or extensive 
post-production editing wiU be required. Time and space are the 
controlling factors for production staging and shooting. A number 
of shots have to be delivered from a variety of compromise positions. 
Time to get to the shot, time to deliver the shot and time to reposi- 
tion for the next shot are fixed by the timescale of the continuous 
event in front of the cameras. Because of the pressure of time and 
space many shots in live, or recorded as live, television were a poor 
compromise between what could be achieved and what was possible 
to achieve. 

The introduction of the portable video camera/recorder allowed the 
same flexibihty of application as a film unit with even greater oppor- 
tunities in image manipulation in post-production. Drama continued 
to be shot on video, especially in the hugely popular genre of the twice/ 
thrice -weekly 'soap' series. Discontinuous recording and single-shot 
takes could have avoided the compromise of multi-camera drama 
shooting but the full advantage of this is constrained by cost, experi- 
ence and convention. 

Cost is the most restrictive factor in the transition from quickly 
producing large chunks of usable television direct from a studio to a 
method of production that involves both an extended studio produc- 
tion period and an extensive post-production period. Television has an 
insatiable appetite for new programmes and, with a history of rapid 
production techniques, it was unhkely that any innovation that 
increased costs would achieve immediate acceptance. Television stu- 
dios were designed and equipped to produce a finished product - a 
'live' transmission. Although many programmes are discontinuously 
recorded, the mechanics of production are conditioned by a capital 
investment in a technique that has been superseded. Lightweight loca- 
tion drama other than soaps has side-stepped this tradition and devel- 
oped its own innovations, its expansion powered not only by the 
impetus of financial savings but by the results it has achieved. 

Obviously there is a part of television that is live or rooted in live 
technique. Some actuality events such as sport or public events have 
their own sacrosanct timescale and capitalize on television's ability to 
transmit instantaneous pictures. There are also those programmes that 
are simply communicating information and require an unobtrusive 
technique free from interpretation. Obtrusive technique is usually 
grabbed by productions seeking 'spontaneity' - pop, quiz and enter- 
tainment productions that flash the viewer with visual cacophony in an 

152 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

attempt to communicate in perpetual motion tliat 'it's all happening 
here and now'. 

The video look 

The criticism that electronically generated pictures are unsubtle and 
scrappy has a basis of truth. Too many shots occur that are expedient 
rather than essential - mass produced and instantly forgettable. Built 
into the television system is a back-log of technique that has evolved to 
meet a condition that is no longer a prime consideration - namely that 
all productions have to be transmitted live. 

Multi-camera records real time. This often results in superfluous 
movement being left in, otherwise the production process would grav- 
itate to single shot/single take and lose its economic advantage of 
speed. Single camera/single shot has an entirely different feel to it. 
Time and space can be manipulated in many different ways to provide 
a flow of images that defy location and time continuity. 

The effect on video camerawork of smaller budgets and a tradition 
of 'cheap and quick' technique compared with film is that frequently 
shot structure is expedient rather than optimum. This often results in 
staging action for two or more cameras to save time on separate set- 
ups. Shots are often continued past the point where a cut would occur 
in a film, which results in fidgety reframing by the use of zoom or track 
to accommodate additional artistes entering or leaving shot. This 
adjustment of frame (although often expertly disguised) is a common 
occurrence in video camerawork, probably because the director is 
constantly monitoring the shot and is prepared to trade-off" a less 
than satisfactory framing against the cost and time of another set-up. 

Multi-camera shooting appears to encourage a convention of com- 
plicated stagings that require small 'zooms' and 'tidy-up' camera 
movement to keep a reasonable frame. This can be instantly achieved 
in a television studio because of smooth floors and cameras mounted 
on pedestals, unlike feature film production where more dehberation 
and time is needed if a change of camera movement is required. 
Television production often favours the two person or three person 
shot with people edging into small areas of frame. Multi-camera 
shooting provides a director with an instantly available wide range 
of shots. This in practice can deteriorate into a choice of shots cover- 
ing a number of average and sometimes indifferent groupings and 

Standard shot sizes 

As multi-camera television camerawork dealt with uninterrupted 
action in a timescale created by the nature of the event covered, 
'real' time had to be continuously covered in a mixture of shot 
sizes and/or camera development. Shot size became standardized 
around abbreviated shot descriptions such as MCU (medium close- 
up), CU (close-up), MS (medium shot), LS (long shot) and o/s 2s 
(over-the-shoulder two shot), etc., in order that matched shot size 
could be achieved to allow invisible cuts between cameras. 
Cameramen had to provide cutting points either pre-rehearsed or 
by monitoring what the rest of the camera crew were providing. 
Same size shots of the same subject would not cut together, neither 

Composition styles 


(a) BCU {big close up) 

Whole face fills the screen. Top 

of frame cuts forehead. 

would widely diiferent amounts of head room. Idiosyncratic personal 
composition by a cameraman would remain unnoticed if they were 
responsible for the whole of the visual production but would imme- 
diately be apparent if intercut with standard camera technique pro- 
vided by the rest of the crew. Camera technique remained invisible 
provided it conformed to certain criteria. These conventions are 
inherited by everyone working within live or multi-camera recordings 
unless there is a production requirement for shot change to be obtru- 
sive and obvious. 

(b) CU (close up) 

Bottom of frame cuts where knot 

of tie would be 

(c) MCU (medium close up) 
Bottom of frame cuts where top 
of breast pocket of a jacket 
would be 

(d) MS (medium shot) 
Bottom of frame cuts at waist 

Figure 12.2 Standard shot sizes 

The introduction of the zoom and television picture 

Before the introduction of colour television in the late 1960s, most 
television productions were shot using prime lenses. Although zooms 
were extensively used on outside broadcasts, many studio productions 
used cameras that were fitted with a rotating turret equipped with four 
lenses of different focal length. The precise lens angle depended on 
tube size and camera manufacturer but the four standard focal lengths 
chosen had lens angles of approximately 35°, 24°, 16° and 8°. 

Because of the standardization of lens angle, camera scripts and 
studio floor plans were produced giving the lens angle and camera 
position for each shot. Although shots were modified during rehearsal, 
the initial choice of lens influenced the look of the production and 
estabhshed a disciphne of matched size and perspective of intercut 
shots. Over time, each prime lens was recognized to have a well- 
defined role in multi-camera studio production. 

The 24° was considered the 'natural' perspective lens and allowed 
camera movement and was often used on 'two' shots or 'three' shots. 
The 16° and the 8° were close-up lenses and, although an occasional 
camera movement was attempted on the 16°, it was likely to result in 
an unsteady frame because of tracking over an uneven studio floor and 
the difficulty of holding frame with a fluid head using a narrow angle. 
Camera movement with an 8° lens intensified this problem and was 
seldom if ever used for tracking. 

SmaU depth-of-field also inhibited camera movement on these lenses 
as the cameraman had to physically move the camera himself, adjust 
the framing and follow focus. This required three hands if constant 
focus pulls were required on the narrow lens. 

The 35° lens was considered 'wide angle' and aUowed complex shot 
development without the twin problems of focus and the considerable 
amount of camera movement required to achieve significant change of 
viewpoint if a smafler lens angle was employed. 

This arrangement of a set of four lenses created a tight discipline in 
production and aided the twin objectives of matched shot size and 
perspective matching. Two cameras being intercut on two people talk- 
ing would, as a matter of good technique, use the same lens angle and 
camera position/height relative to the participants. The introduction 
of colour cameras, which were universally fitted with a zoom because 
of the need for precise alignment of the lens to the four and later three 
tubes required for colour, caused a significant change in picture com- 
position and in camera movement. 

154 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

In the first years of television colour production, there was a deter- 
mined effort to continue with the four-lens convention by using a 
zoom shot box that had been pre-set to the four standard lens angles. 
Tracking the camera was usually favoured in preference to zooming, 
although pop music programmes quickly utilized the visual impact of 

As the range of zoom angles increased, a greater variety of shot sizes 
were possible from any specific camera position. This allowed the 
perspective of some types of conventional shots to change consider- 
ably. Zoom lenses with a 55° wide angle became common and allowed 
a shot development that was more dynamic because of the greater 
exaggeration of artist to background movement. At the narrow end 
of the zoom, lens angles of 5° allowed close-ups of artistes at the back 
of the set with the corresponding reduction in the perspective of the 
depth of the shot. 

The most noticeable change in the style of television camerawork 
came with the use of the zoom to accommodate movement, to trim the 
shot depending on the action. Whereas in the past, with monochrome 
cameras, the staging of the artistes may have been repositioned during 
the blocking of the show to accommodate a fixed lens angle, a flexible 
lens angle allowed the shot to be recomposed by zooming in or out. 
Gradually lens angle and camera position were not pre-plotted but 
relied on the flexibility of the zoom as a variable lens angle to find 
acceptable framing. This was sometimes to the detriment of matched 
shots. Intercut shots could be matched on subject size, if not on per- 
spective, by a rapid adjustment of the zoom. The prejudice against 
zooming even in drama was relaxed until a point was reached where 
zooming predominated in television production. There is a strong 
compositional distinction between zooming and tracking which is 
dealt with in Chapter 16. 

Portable cameras 

With the widespread use of portable video camera/recorders, the 
method of discontinuous single shot shooting shared exactly the 
same technique problems of film. Shooting with editing in mind 
became an essential part of that technique. Composition, size of 
shot, camera movement, camera position and lens angle had to be 
carefully selected in order to facilitate a final 'seamless' string of edited 

The extensive use of video portable cameras, especially in news and 
actuahty programmes, was also responsible for a change in composi- 
tional style. The abihty to position rapidly a hghtweight video camera 
broke down the conventions estabHshed with turret cameras. A style 
evolved, particularly in programmes aimed at young people, where the 
camera was constantly kept on the move. Although some composi- 
tional conventions were retained, the prime intention was to inject 
excitement and pace by nervous, erratic camera movement. 

In its extreme form, it was similar to the subjective style of the 
camera as an actor with other participants in the production treating 
it as a person. In this style, if someone spoke out of frame, the camera 
would swerve to find them. It moved around discussions and in and 

Composition styles 155 

out of groups with very little attempt (or inclination) to disguise the 
movement. This was a studied attempt to avoid conventional produc- 
tion technique in an endeavour to create a diiferent visual appearance 
to that seen in mainstream television. 

Customary technique 

In television, the nature of many programmes (e.g., sport, discussion, 
etc.), does not allow precise information about shots either to be 
rehearsed or confirmed. An experienced television cameraman will 
know the range and type of shots that will be required in each type 
of programme. A knowledge of programme-making formats must be 
added to an understanding of technique and how technology influ- 
ences technique. Any competent cameraman, for example, will auto- 
matically apply the appropriate production methods to a news 
broadcast, and then be able to switch on the following day to the 
appropriate production methods of a pop concert. Often different 
techniques are not compatible. 

A production team will expect each member of the unit to be famil- 
iar with the customary techniques of the programme format in pro- 
duction. Nobody, for example, will have the time to explain the rules 
of a sport that is being transmitted live. They will assume that the 
cameraman knows the standard TV response to different phases of 
the event. 

Multi-camera production technique rehes on the assumption that 
every member of the production crew is equipped with a knowledge of 
the conventions of the specific programme format and has a thorough 
mastery of the basic skills in their particular craft. Information about 
shots will be supplied during rehearsal and/or during transmission/ 
recording, but it will be assumed by the Director that the camera 
crew will respond with customary technique to the specific programme 
requirements (example - matched shots for interviews). 


Within film as well as TV production there are recognizably separate 
genres that have their own codes or visual conventions. For example, 
sports programming covers a team or individual competition that 
leads to a result. Documentaries have covered sports events in an 
impressionistic and symbolic style without bothering about results or 
who was competing. It is unlikely that sports fans would accept a 
camera coverage that ignored who won and simply concentrated on 
the 'poetry of motion' of the sports competitors. 

To a large extent, genre or the type of programming dictates which 
of the standard visual treatments will be used. These conventions alter 
over time as, for example, in sports coverage with the overlay of 
computer graphics to examine participants' performance, but the 
crossover of one genre's visual style into another type of production 
is sufficiently uncommon to be noteworthy. For example, a western 
will be shot in a different style to a musical. They will both share a 
common visual grammar but will usually have the distinct convents of 

156 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

their genre. These separate sets of conventions are sometimes inter- 
changed to inject a fresh presentation to an oft-repeated theme. Errol 
Morris in his documentary 'The Thin Blue Line' (1988) mixed crime 
feature film technique with the documentary genre to provide a truth- 
ful account of the innocence of a wrongly accused murderer. David 
Lynch's 'Blue Velvet' (1986) mixed film noir conventions with horror 

Within the mass media, most films and TV productions wiU display 
styHstic replications and slight revisions rather than a complete rejec- 
tion of standard conventions. Successful innovation when it occurs, is 
often rapidly copied and becomes part of the everyday visual grammar 
such as the freeze frame at the end of Francois Truffaut's 'Les Quatre 
Cents Coups' (1959), Sam Pekinpah's slow-motion gunfight deaths, 
sepia tinting of films set in the past, etc. 

Conventional documentary style 

A standard documentary structure, popular for many years, involves 
an unseen presenter (often the producer/director) interviewing the 
principle subject/s in the film. From the interview (the questions are 
edited out), appropriate visuals are recorded to match the interviewee 
comments, which then becomes the voice-over. A professional actor is 
often used to deliver an impersonal narration on scientific or academic 
subjects. The choice of the quahty of the voice is often based on the 
aim to avoid an overt personahty or 'identity' in the voice-over whilst 
still keeping a lively dehvery. 

The camera can foUow the documentary subject without production 
intervention, but often the individual is asked to foUow some typical 
activity in order for the camera to catch the event, and to match up 
with comments made in previous interviews. 

Television documentary attempts to deal with the truth of a partic- 
ular situation but it also has to engage and hold the attention of a mass 
audience. John Grierson defined documentary as 'the creative treat- 
ment of actuahty'. How much 'creativity' is mixed in with the attempt 
at an objective account of the subject has been at the heart of debate 
for many years. 

'Verite' as a style 

The mini DV camera format has allowed the 'verite' style to proHfer- 
ate. This type of documentary attempts to be a fly-on-the-wall by 
simply observing events without influence. It over-relies on chance 
and the coincidence of being at the right place at the right time to 
capture an event that will reveal (subjectively judged by the film maker 
at the editing stage), the nature of the subject. With this style, the main 
objective of being in the right place at the right time becomes the 
major creative task. There is often an emphasis on a highly charged 
atmosphere to inject drama into the story. It may use minimum script- 
ing and research other than to get 'inside' where the action is estimated 
to be. The style often incorporates more traditional techniques of 
commentary, interviews, graphics and reconstruction, using hand- 
held camerawork and available light technique. 

Composition styles 157 


Documentaries featuring the habitat and lives of animals are a peren- 
nially popular form of documentary. They often involve long and 
painstaking observation and filming to get the required footage, 
added to some very ingenious special effects set-ups. A programme 
about the Himalayan Black Bear also featured a sequence of the 
bear hunting for honey on a tree trunk that was filmed in a zoo. 
The director said it would have been impossible to film it in the wild 
and it was needed because it made the sequence stronger. It is com- 
monplace in wildlife programmes to mix and match wild and captured 


The spontaneous style of ordinary people observed strives for 'realism' 
and neutral reportage but gives no clue to what has been recon- 
structed. The viewer is sucked into a totally believable account. 
Many professional film makers protest that the viewer understands 
their subterfuge and fabrication and they are forgiven for the sake 
of entertainment, involvement and pace. But do viewers understand 
the subtleties of programme making? The viewer needs to question 
what they are shown but, as 'invisible' techniques are designed to 
hide the joins, how can the viewer remind themselves at each moment 
that they are watching a construct of reality? A documentary crew 
followed a woman who repeatedly failed her driving test. One 
sequence involved the woman waking her husband in the middle of 
the night with her worries. Did the viewer question if the crew had 
spent each night in the bedroom waiting on the off-chance that this 
was going to happen or did they immediately think 'this is a fake - a 

Music videos 

In 1975, Bruce Gowers directed a seven-minute musical video 
'Bohemian Rhapsody' featuring the pop group Queen. It started a 
trend of using videos to promote pop singles. It was the flexibility of 
the small portable video camera that led to the development of several 
contemporary styles of camerawork These styles did not arrive over- 
night but had a long pedigree that sometimes embraced German 
expressionist films such as 'Nosferatu' (1922), 'The Cabinet of Dr 
Calagari' (1919), the short surrealist films 'Un Chien Andalou' 
(1928) and 'L'Age d'Or' (1930) of Luis Bunuel, the alternative 'jump 
cut' styles of Jean Luc Goddard, Richard Lester and the Beatles 1960s 
films, commercials and many other visual sources. This portmanteau 
of stylistic flourishes is often dubbed the 'MTV style after the TV 
channel that transmitted many pop videos. 
The main characteristics of the MTV style are: 

• it ignores continuity of time and place; 

• traditional 'visual' storytelhng is replaced by an emphasis on place, 
feeling or mood, usually with abrupt discontinuity in time and 

158 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

• music form and beat replace traditional continuity as the structur- 
ing device; 

• pace becomes the source of energy that drives the audience's inter- 
est forward, not a 'what happens next?' storyhne; 

• the music video often involves fragments of performance but not 
particularly staged in one venue. These clips are juxtaposed with 
non-performance images similar to CD cover images; 

• location and images often allude to the worlds of science fiction, 
horror, dream states or parodies of TV and film genres, TV for- 
mats, comic books and computer games; 

• there is also the use of the knowing jokes about popular culture. 
This involves a mixture of admiration and derision for the second- 
rate or popular icons and aUows the audience to be let in on the 
joke and invites the audience to join the performer in the conspir- 
acy of ridicule. This is similar to the punk credo of 'we know we 
can't play or sing - but then why are you paying money to see us!'. 

MTV style 

Music videos are similar to commercials in that there are many images 
combined in a very short time. Many visual decisions are made in post- 
production with a greater use of digital manipulation compared with 
other programme formats. A characteristic of the MTV style is con- 
tinuous camera movement and very fast cutting - almost single frame 
- to inject pace. These flash frame sequences are contrasted with slow- 
motion shots of very mundane activities such as spooning sugar into a 
coffee cup. There is a heavy emphasis on the isolated image rather than 
the continuity of a flow of images, coupled with the continuous use of 
wide-angle distorted perspective and a preoccupation with surreal 
images such as a close up of an eyeball. 

There is a search for the bizarre, fantasy or evocative imagery that 
attacks cause and effect. Many music videos tease the viewer into 
attempting to find a narrative logic that is missing. Events are juxta- 
posed for their disturbing effect. Discontinuous editing is used to frac- 
ture any temporal or spatial coherence. There is a lack of narrative 
construction in the shots and sequences are constructed from isolated 
arresting images similar to fashion photography. The content of the 
shot emphasizes feehng or atmosphere with no narrative construction 
or a coherent 'message'. 

Visual puzzles 

Pop videos challenge the visual impulse to find order in diversity by 
using many more close-ups than long shots, which avoid revealing the 
context of a shot, and often the geography of the setting is not 
explained. There is often an emphasis on foreground with no informa- 
tion about background. This can be achieved either by long focal 
length lenses that flatten perspective or wide-angle lenses and crowded 
foreground with characters masking out background. The lighting 
treatment is often non-reahstic using filters, and atmospheric locations 
are used to produce dream states and fantasy. The jump cut predom- 
inates, often with rapid cutting to generate pace. 

Composition styles 159 

Richard Lester 

Richard Lester's films featuring the Beatles, 'A Hard Day's Night' 
(1964) and 'Help' (1965) were the first to move away from a contin- 
uous record of a performance to a more free-flowing stream of images 
that remained within the 'feeling' of the music. His technique included 
cinema verite, jump cuts, multi-cameras on the performances, rapid 
cutting and whip pans. Energy, in this style, takes precedence over 

This style moved away from the musicians/singers performing a 
number such as in 'Singing in the Rain' (1952), in favour of movement 
and rapid changes in location. A series of diverse images unified only 
by a soundtrack were presented, uninhibited by traditional rules of 
continuity. The films were a vehicle for the music and not structured 
around a plot and characterization. The 'what happens next' method 
of classic storytelhng is replaced by fast-cutting imagery to replicate 
pace, energy and atmosphere. 

The Beatles played themselves, which allowed them to step in and 
out of character and speak to the audience. This use of parody to 
break down the barrier between audience and performer became a 
popular device. The style voids cause and eifect plots and any consist- 
ency in time or place. It concentrates on mood, feelings or to evoke 
atmosphere of a surreal location. The general movement called Post- 
Modernism shares a key feature of this style by reflecting on itself 
Participants step outside of their video persona to comment on their 
video performance or the media in general. They in eifect join the 
audience who are watching the performance and comment on the 
performance. MTV style emphasizes that it's a film - it's not real. 

In a sketch in the Monty Python TV programme, two or three 
characters are 'trapped' in a featureless studio set. They are unable 
to exit through a door or window because they then find themselves on 
a pre-recorded film. They cannot break out of a TV 'performance' 
even though the concept of a studio reality is proposed as having a 
greater reality than appearing on film. The comedy works for the 
studio audience because they can see the characters in the studio set 
but can only see their images protesting on the playback of the film. 
The performers acknowledge that they are being watched as opposed 
to maintaining an illusion that the performance is 'real'. 

Uncertainty as a style 

If MTV style seeks to be less 'realistic' there is another style of crime 
fiction that attempts to persuade its audience that they are watching an 
authentic event. Standard Hollywood camera technique emphasizes 
content - the development of the narrative rather than highlighting 
the methods of production. In Steven Boccho's 'NYPD Blue' TV 
series the shooting style appears to continuously draw the audience's 
attention to the camerawork. 

Characteristics of this visual style: 

• every dialogue close-up has a twitch in the framing as if the 
cameraman has accidentally knocked the camera; 

• in a diagonal tilt to a hospital entrance, for example, the camera 
overshoots the door and rapidly pans back and centres up. The 

160 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

camera appears to be uncertain of its final framing (see Figure 

• a fast pan witli actor movement on a long focal length lens picks 
up another actor to foUow moving in the opposite direction. The 
camera appears to be distracted or unsure of its priorities; 

• a flash pan from an unimportant object picks up a moving subject 
that is immediately cut away from before their identity is fully 

The viewer is continuously teased by random camera movement 
with very few static shots to estabhsh or explain the 'geography' of 
the setting. This causes some viewers to complain of 'jerky' camera- 
work and distracting movement. They complain that they are dis- 
tracted by the visual style and cannot lose themselves in the story. 
In effect, they are constantly being reminded that they are watching 
a film. 'NYPD' camera moves are fast, staccato and obtrusive. There 
appears to be no attempt to hide the mechanics of film making. How 
does the camerawork style of 'NYPD' differ from the dozens of other 
TV crime series or feature films? 

Some people may imagine that a hand-held camera and random 
unstructured shots are more real or more immediate, but film makers 
have always been looking for ways of communicating their message 
with maximum effectiveness. The unsteady camera is simply a recent 
variation on the many ways realism has been attempted in film and TV 
programme making. 

The camera surprised by the action 

When camcorders came into widespread use in broadcasting in the 
early 1980s, they were first used for newsgathering before entering 
general programme making. On-the-shoulder 'wobblyscope' became 
the standard trademark when covering impromptu action. War report- 
ing or civil unrest were presented in news bulletins with the nervous 
'tic' of a hand-held video camera. Reahsm appeared to be equated 
with an unsteady frame. 

Cinema verite in the early 1960s hnked on-the-shoulder camerawork 
with a new flexibility of movement and subject, but many film direc- 
tors adopted the uncertainty of an unsteady picture to suggest reahsm 
and authenticity (see below, 'JFK' (1991), dir. Ohver Stone). 

Many productions mimic the camera movement of ENG news cov- 
erage that, because the subject matter is unknown and unstaged, is 
frequently 'wrong footed' when panning or zooming. Holding unpre- 
dictable action within the frame results in a different visual appearance 
from the calculated camera movement of a rehearsed shot. The uncer- 
tainty displayed in following impromptu and fast-developing action 
has an energy that these productions attempt to repHcate. 

The same visual characteristics are used by commercials designed to 
suggest that a carefully calculated piece of promotion is spontaneous 
and 'real'. In one detergent commercial, for example, an unsteady 
camera follows a 'reporter' to the door of a house. A surprised 'house- 
wife' opens the door and reacts to the reporter and film crew before 
endorsing the product. The style is a parody of a news 'doorstepping' 
sequence using the famihar ENG visual characteristics of unsteady 
camerawork and uncertain camera movement. 

Composition styles 161 

Hand-held camerawork became the signature for reaHsm. Even cos- 
tume dramas that had been meticulously researched for costume and 
setting and classically shot and ht would throw in an obhgatory hand- 
held sequence to add pace and spontaneity to a scene ('Persuasion', 
BBC TV, 1994). 

An example occurs in Stanley Kubrick's 'Dr Strangelove' (1964), 
which has a sequence where a deranged American air force officer is 
under siege by American soldiers in his office on an air base. With him 
in the office is an Enghsh haison officer player by Peter Sellers. As 
bullets spray the office windows the two take cover on the office floor. 
The set is lit and the action staged to emphasize the identity and feeling 
of the main actors. It is what can be termed mainstream camera tech- 
nique. As the American officer moves towards the window, a camera 
move accompanies him and its movement matches the actors move- 
ment - it starts when he starts and stops when he stops. This is a 
characteristic of invisible technique. The audience can observe, but it 
is not overtly made obvious that they are watching a controlled and 
structured action. 

When Kubrick cuts from this standard treatment of the interior to 
the soldiers advancing on the office, the camerawork style changes. It 
is now shot like war reportage. The camera is carried on the shoulder 
and there is a constant unsteady frame. Many shots are on a very long 
focal length lens that compresses depth, and action is often masked by 
interposed objects. The camera appears to be constantly surprised by 
the action. It has the visual signature of actuahty coverage and the 
audience consciously pick-up on this 'news' style. It appears as if this is 
spontaneous action. It is out of the control of the director. It is real 
and immediate. 

Of course, just as Kubrick controls the staging of the interior action 
and the smooth invisible camerawork, the exterior is equally under his 
control and he can, if he wishes, place every actor/soldier in position 
for a 'well composed' shot. He chooses not to because the unsteady, 
random nature of the apparently ad-Hb exterior shooting aUows him 
to fabricate the ersatz realism of news coverage. The visual language 
has been changed to suit the message. 

Oliver Stone achieves the same effect in his film 'JFK' (1991), when 
he creates the visual appearance of a surveillance/training film of the 
Cuban rebels. This change in visual language is in contrast to the 
mainstream technique he uses in the rest of the film. 

Belief and disbelief 

Film makers adopted the imperfections of hand-held camerawork as a 
style and also to symbolize an attitude to their material, but this 
'uncertainty' style sends two conflicting signals to the audience. 

There is the production attempt to recreate the authentic ' primitive' 
unstructured news footage - the feeling in the viewer that he or she is 
watching a real event that is beyond the control of the film maker and 
therefore the camera has a difficult time to capture the action. But the 
rapid and unsteady camerawork that provides this impression also 
draws attention to itself. 

If the audience continuously becomes aware of the methods of pre- 
sentation, that is, if camera movement draws attention to itself, then 
this denies the reality of the action and suggests that the film is a piece 

162 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

of fiction - a fabrication of reality. The audience will be constantly 
reminded that they are being told a story and never lose themselves in 
the action. This style has to overcome the viewer's irritation of 
random, unstructured camera movement and the continuous nervous 
'tic' of an unsteady camera. 

'Medium Cool' 

One influence on this style may have been the feature film 'Medium 
Cool' (1968). The director of this film was Haskell Wexler, an ex-news 
cameraman. One of the characteristics of news camerawork is that it is 
seldom possible to rehearse camera movement. News, by definition, is 
unrehearsed although a great deal of movement can be anticipated by 
an experienced cameraman. The uncertainty of what is going to hap- 
pen is reflected in the look of news coverage. Whereas, in a feature 
film, each camera movement is carefully pre-planned and calculated, 
news coverage requires almost a 'hose pipe' squirting of the lens to 
follow whatever is happening as it happens. 

At the beginning of 'Medium Cool' there is a discussion between a 
group of people at a reception. Haskell Wexler shoots the discussion as 
if it is unrehearsed and the cameraman has had no opportunity to 
discover in what order the speakers wfll talk. They are all actors and 
the scene could just as well have been scripted and shot-listed as any 
simflar scene in a conventional narrative film. Instead, Wexler imitates 
the look of a spontaneous news conference by his style of camerawork 
in order to make the discussion appear to be authentic and reahstic. 

The uncertain camerawork in 'NYPD' is similar to this news-style 
recreation in 'Medium Cool'; it is a fabricated style. It appears as if the 
camera is surprised by events. Like the audience, the camera never 
seems to know what will happen next. This replication of news cover- 
age is constructed by a set of visual mannerisms. 

Camcorder style 

Ignorance of technique may seem to be a curious influence on a style 
but the growth of amateur use of the video camera has spawned a 
milhon holiday videos and the recording of family events that appear 
remarkably similar in appearance to some visual aspects of production 
shot in the 'camera surprised by events' style. 

The user of the holiday camcorder is often unaware of main-stream 
camera technique and usually pans and zooms the camera around to 
pick up anything and everything that catches their attention. They 
have little or no knowledge of camera shot structure and rarely if 
ever are the tapes edited. The result is a stream of unconnected and 
fast-moving shots that never settle on a subject and are restlessly on 
the move (i.e., similar to the production style of 'NYPD Blue'). 

Amateur pans and zooms are often uncertain in their execution. 
Being unrehearsed, they frequently change direction and, when they 
settle on a subject, the shot is usually not held long enough for the 
subject to be established. The results are remarkable consistent across 
the world from Japan to Iceland. Most of them are very similar and 
with very little visual interest except to the immediate circle of family 
and friends. 

Composition styles 163 

This 'camcorder style' is a home-grown technique of innocent sim- 
plicity practised with no intellectual concept of the craft or technique 
of professional camerawork. There are direct parallels with naive art, 
where Sunday painters produce at times extraordinary paintings 
because of their unawareness of main-stream art. Very accomplished 
artists (e.g., Miro, Picasso, Klee, etc.) were impressed by this naivety 
and the innocence of child paintings and primitive art and produced 
work that was heavily influenced by the 'untutored' eye. 

The maker of a holiday video has the same naive self-assurance that 
their work is presentable and accomplished as the naive painter. They 
assume that their work will engage their audience in the same way as 
main-stream video production. 

Video diaries 

The appeal of this 'innocent eye' approach has been taken up by 
broadcasting organizations who have loaned camcorders to the 'man 
in the street' for them to make video diaries of their own lives. The 
novice cameraman or woman is given a brief explanation of the 
mechanics of the camera and then left to their own devices to film 
whatever they wish. 

The broadcasters claim that the appeal of this 'camcorder style' is its 
immediacy, its primitive but authentic style. It eliminates the profes- 
sional crew who, by their presence in a location, may have an undue 
influence on the participants. The resulting untutored camerawork 
provides an alternative to the standard styles inherited from the 'invi- 
sible technique' tradition. 

Most European video diaries, however, are not the raw and rough 
outpourings of an 'innocent eye'. Broadcasters usually make certain 
that the material acquired by the amateur cameraman is carefully 
structured and cut by professional editors. The transmitted material 
uses very sophisticated editing techniques on very unsophisticated 

There appears to be a styhstic confusion or mismatch between the 
primitive 'honesty' displayed by unsophisticated amateur camerawork 
that is cut using professional editing techniques in order to make the 
video diary 'watchable' by a mass audience. If it is acceptable that the 
camerawork can be crude and lack visual subtlety why not bring some- 
one off the street to edit the tape and extend the principle to the 
'innocent' editor? 


There has been a style backlash against the high definition, high qual- 
ity video images that are possible with digital television production. 
These 'low-tech' stylists choose sub-broadcast equipment such as 
Super-8 film and domestic DV video cameras to create grainy, sub- 
standard pictures for their productions, in marked contrast with the 
usual highly pohshed commercial images. They have defiantly chosen 
to be a counter-culture to the over-crafted film and television product. 
They are looking for another version of authenticity by suggesting that 
image quality that is so good that it is invisible is masking reahty. 

164 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Punk - the cult of the incompetent 

There is a style of camerawork that falls between the innocence (or 
ignorance) of the domestic camcorder user and the conscious alterna- 
tive technique created by groups such as cinema verite. Its chief char- 
acteristic is an aggressive hose-piping of the camera that sprays 
backwards and forwards to follow anything that moves or speaks. 
This style of 'punk TV can be seen in TV youth programmes, music 
videos and some 'people' shows. 

The style is a bogus naivety similar to the punk musicians of the 
1970s who were deliberately inept at singing and playing their instru- 
ments and used their inadequacy in technique to taunt their audience. 
They aggressively displayed their incompetence. Anyone can play in a 
band, they suggested: why do you have to be a musician? They rejected 
what they saw as snobbishness in the music establishment and rejected 
any concepts of musicaUty or 'quahty'. 

'Punk TV camerawork also values the energy, spontaneity and 'bad 
taste' of the spray-can approach in camera coverage. These produc- 
tions reject the standard visual conventions and attempt to provide 
their own individual language. It can be summarized as 'do your own 
thing - shout don't sing'. Punk music was almost a rejection of com- 
munication. Some bands hated applause. They wanted no confirma- 
tion that they had made a connection with their audience. 

Some 'punk TV camerawork and productions display the same 
nihiHsm with a disregard for clear communication, an ignorance of 
conventions moving into an aggressive display of lack of technique. It 
is an 'in your face' yobbish style with a deUberate avalanche of hand- 
held shots to zap the viewer. 

These, of course, are deliberate production decisions in order to 
inject pace and texture into the narrative. The camerawork may 
appear anarchic but there is usually a precision to the cuts when 
music is shot. Unless the director is completely inept, the cuts come 
on the beat and match the mood and the pace of the number. In 
practise very few hand-held styles of camerawork used in productions 
will abandon narrative editing. The camerawork may be prized for its 
'rawness' and spontaneity but it will almost certainly be organized and 
structured by conventional editing technique with just a few jump cuts 
thrown in for flavour. 

Defocused 'blobs of colour' style 

Staging in depth, the wide-angle look with deep focus, had been in 
vogue from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s but two innovations 
caused problems with this style of camerawork. Early CinemaScope 
(circa 1954) required a separately focused anamorphic supplementary 
lens attached to the front of a 50 mm lens, resulting in a reduced 
exposure. In addition, the widespread use of Eastman colour negative, 
which was less sensitive than the fastest black and white stock, pre- 
vented the large depth-of-field in studio interiors that had been 
obtained in such films as 'Citizen Kane'. As long focal length lenses 
became available for the new widescreen formats a new style gradually 

A long focal length lens and appropriate camera distance not only 
compresses space but produces attractive defocused abstract back- 

Composition styles 165 

ground patterns. Andrejz Wajda using a 250 mm lens noted: 'The 
background, dotted with secondary elements, loses its aggressiveness. 
The image softens, the medley of colours melts into flat tints of 
colour . . . The foreground, however, is transformed into a coloured 
haze that seems to float' {Double Vision: My Life in Film). 

The film maker who inspired and popularized this style of out-of- 
focus, misty blobs of colour was Claude Lelouche with his film 'Un 
homme et une femme' (1966). In fact, Wajda and his cameraman 
called the fuzzy foreground shapes they devised with a long focal 
length lens, 'lelouches'. The style has had a long and enduring influ- 
ence both in commercials and feature films. Lelouche was not the 
first director to explore the abstract qualities of a long focal length 
lens; Antonioni's Tl desert Rosso' (1964) was shot with lenses of 
100 mm upwards but 'Un homme et une femme' captured the crea- 
tive imagination of a number of film makers, e.g., the 500 mm zoom 
lens used on the cycle sequence in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance 
Kid' (1969). 

The main characteristics of this style are the use of a very long 
focal length lens, shooting against the hght and the use of heavy 
diffusion. Lelouche did not use diffusion but, because of the poor 
optical performance of long focal lenses at this time and his fondness 
for allowing subjects to move away or towards the lens without 
foflowing focus, it appears, when shooting against the light, that 
diffusion had been used. Flare and hght behind the actor had always 
been avoided by American cinematographers. One reason, given by 
Gordon Wiflis, was that studio bosses wanted a good, well-con- 
trasted picture to cater for the drive-in audiences viewing outside 
with less than perfect film projection. With the move away from 
studio feature production to independent production, possibly cine- 
matographers were free to use flare or very dark scenes, such as in 
'The Godfather' (1972). 

Heavy diffusion on a lens produces a scattering of white light over 
the whole frame as well as a loss of definition. Foreground and back- 
ground defocused blobs of colour caused, for example, by flowers 
provide romantic, benevolent colourful 'nature' images that are still 
exploited to date. If, on a long focal lens, focus pulls are added 
through foreground leaves or shooting reflections in water against 
the light, a whole range of stylized effects are available. The reflections 
on moving water can, of course, be tweaked up for greater effect by the 
use of star filters. 

The reconstruction of a period 

Television versions of classic books such as the novels of Jane Austen 
involve a production quest for period authenticity with authentic cos- 
tume, settings and characterization. But what constitutes an authentic 
film style of the period? What would be an authentic camerawork/ 
production style when shooting any subject before the development 
of cinema? 

A costume drama set in the eighteenth century used hand-held cam- 
eras on a banquet to repHcate 1990s ENG style of camerawork. Is this 
an anachronism? Would the director accept a stylized acting perfor- 
mance (e.g., Marlon Brando 'method' acting) or would this be con- 
sidered 'out of character' with the period? If costume and settings are 

166 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

in period for a decade in the twentieth century should the film style of 
the production be in the same period? The same arguments have raged 
for many years, for example when Shakespeare plays are performed in 
modern dress. 

There is a paradox of the quest for authentic period costume 
dramas that seek authentic settings, food, locations, etc., but use 
contemporary styles in shooting. The interpretation of a past age 
may be completely bogus when translating from text to images. 
The construction of a Jane Austin novel is of its time. The television 
images of this novel are also of their time and may be in direct 
conflict. Audiences often dislike modern-dress versions of 
Shakespeare that seek to reinterpret the sixteenth century in terms 
that are relevant to twentieth-century audiences. But can Jane Austin 
be re-written in the style of Dashiell Hammett and remain true to the 
original author's intentions? Viewers may be image ilhterate and be 
impressed by authentic settings while totally ignoring the anachron- 
ism of the shooting style. Should adaptations of Edwardian novels be 
staged in the style of early films? 

The unconscious expression of contemporary fashion and attitudes 
can be seen in the set/prop design of science fiction films that are 
intended to be set in the future. Each decade's prediction of what 
the future will look like is heavily based on the current contemporary 
design ideas. 

Sports coverage 

Live sports coverage has a curious combination of factual and sub- 
jective camerawork. The broadcast of a sports event can be a reason- 
ably accurate record of the event. Real people engaged in an activity 
with an unknown result. The camera coverage of the game can intro- 
duce a strong subjective influence. For example, the final of a tennis 
tournament wfll provide a point by point description of the match's 
progress. The big close-up of the participant's face is a production 
effort by the director to interpret the feelings of the player. A close- 
up in drama carries a great deal of emotional intensity. It is hoped that 
the story of the tennis match wfll have the same type of intensity when 
the visual grammar of fiction is used on a sporting event. 

Changing styles 

The American film academic David Bordwell proposed that there was 
continuity in film style over time with the occasional revision. 

My research questions, focusing on the elaboration of norms, have led me to 
stress continuity. The lesson of this is quite general. Modernism's promoters 
asked us to expect constant turnover, virtually seasonal breakthroughs in style. 
In most artworks, however, novel devices of styles or structure or theme stand 
out against a backdrop of norm-abiding processes. Most films will be bound to 
tradition in more ways than not; we should find many more stylistic replica- 
tions and revisions than rejections. Especially in a mass medium, we ought to 
expect replication and minor modifications, not thoroughgoing repudiation. 
We must always be alert for innovation, but students of style will more often 
encounter stability and gradual change. (Bordwell, 1997) 

Composition styles 167 

Summary of the history of style 

Changes in style and technology do not confine themselves to a specific 
decade or country. Here are a few changes over the past 100 years. 

• 1895-1910: this was an age of invention and experiment in film 
technique. Style was not so much a considered apphcation of 
technique as the result of the early pioneers' discoveries. 

• 1910-1940: by the end of the silent period the Hollywood studio 
system was in fuU operation and began to shape style. This 
resulted in the recognizable visual styles of the major studios. 
Warner Brothers had a gritty hard-edge reahsm; Universal had a 
moody darkness; MGM had the luxurious, high-key, glamorous 
look; at RKO, Van Nest Polglase oversaw the styhng of the 
Astaire-Rogers musicals and 'Citizen Kane'; Paramount had a 
gloss influenced by European sophistication. 

• 1940s: saw staging in depth, on the street shooting, the long take 
and elaborate camera development shots. 

• 1950s: sci-fi and long focal length lenses, widescreen styles influ- 
enced by limitation of widescreen lenses and depth of focus. Most 
television was live until the end of the decade, which imposed 
limitation of camerawork and story fines. 

• 1960s: the development of the lightweight camera and Nouvelle 
Vague shooting; widescreen solved the shape and the limitations of 
the screen. 

• 1970s: television established with TV sitcoms, soaps and more 
sophisticated sports coverage. The break-up of the Hollywood 
system allowed independent productions to be more adventurous. 

• 1980s: the hghtweight video revolution in television hberated 
drama from the studios. 

• 1990s: advances in video post-production allowed film and TV to 
achieve control of effects and purely electronic-generated images. 


Lighting and composition 

The key pictorial force 

The many influences on composition already discussed, sucli as invis- 
ible technique, choice of lens/position, perspective, visual design ele- 
ments and style, are all created or influenced by Ught. The most 
important element in the design of visual images is light. Apart from 
its fundamental role of illuminating the subject, light determines tonal 
differences, outhne, shape, colour, texture and depth. It can create 
compositional relationships, provide balance, harmony and contrast. 
It provides mood, atmosphere and visual continuity. Light is the key 
pictorial force in film and television production. 

The basic requirement to provide adequate hght for an exposed 
picture with the required depth-of-field can fairly easily be achieved 
with contemporary film stock. Video cameras are sufficiently sensitive 
to provide an acceptable exposure under almost any found lighting 
condition. But whereas the technical requirements of exposure, appro- 
priate colour temperature and contrast range may be readily satisfied, 
the resultant image may be a muddle of competing areas of light and 
shade that do not communicate the intended 'visual message' of the 
shot. The control of light to guide the audience's attention and to 
communicate production requirements plays a crucial part in the crea- 
tion of any film or TV image. In almost every situation, visual com- 
munication can be more effective by choosing the camera position or 
staging participants with reference to found light and usually by add- 
ing some form of additional direct or reflected Hght. 

Production lighting does a great deal more than simply enabhng the 
viewer to recognize the content of the shot, but usually the first basic 
technical requirements are to supply sufficient light for the required 
exposure, at the appropriate colour temperature, and to help modify 
or create a suitable contrast range for the subject in order to meet the 
requirements of the recording medium. 

Using light as a set of techniques to create tonal differences, outline, 
shape, colour, texture, patterns of colour, and to define and develop 

Lighting and composition 169 

the space of the shot requires an understanding of how we perceive 
light, the nature of light and the contrast range of the recording 

Gradations of brightness 

A basic understanding of how we see the world will help when devising 
the hghting and composition of a shot. There are significant differences 
between how the eye responds to a scene and how a camera converts 
light into an electrical signal or records it on film. Lighting must take 
account of these differences and make the appropriate adjustments. 

The relative brightness of a reflective surface is a subjective percep- 
tual construct depending on the brightness levels of surrounding sur- 
faces. The eye perceives gradations of brightness by comparison. It is 
the ratio of one apparent brightness to another (and in what context) 
that determines how different or distinct the two appear to be. The just 
noticeable difference between the intensity of two light sources is dis- 
cernible if one is approximately 8 per cent greater/lesser than the 
other, regardless of them both being of high or low luminous intensity. 
The amount of light entering the eye is controlled by an iris and it is 
also equipped with two types of cells; rods that respond to dim light, 
and cone receptor cells that respond to normal lighting levels. For a 
given iris opening, the average eye can accommodate a contrast range 
of 100:1, but visual perception is always a combination of eye and 
brain. The eye adapts fast to changing light levels and the brain inter- 
prets the eye's response in such way that it appears as if we can scan a 
scene with a very wide contrast range (e.g., 500:1), and see it in a single 

Every element in an image has a specific brightness. One area will be 
seen as bright, another will be perceived as dark. The visual 'weight' of 
different brightness levels will depend on proximity, area and contrast. 
The eye is naturally attracted to the highlight areas in a frame but the 
contrast and impact of an object's brightness in the frame will depend 
on the adjacent brightness levels. A shot of a polar bear against snow 
will require different compositional treatment than a polar bear in a 
zoo enclosure. A small bright object against a dark background will 
have as much visual weight in attracting the eye as a large bright object 
against a bright background. 

How 'bright' one subject appears compared with another and the 
perceived changes in brightness is a function of perception. In an 
interior, a face against a window during the day will appear to be 
dark. With the same illumination on the face against a window at 
night, the face will appear to be bright. Colours appear to be Ughter 
against a dark background and darker against a light backing. 

The relationship between different brightness levels in the frame 
plays an important part in balancing the composition. The study of 
light and dark in composition is termed chiaroscuro - Italian for 

For John Alton, the definitive Hollywood cameraman of the Film 
Noir genre, black was the most important element in the shot. The 
most important lamps for him were the ones he did not turn on. The 
relationship between the light and dark areas of the frame play a 

170 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

critical role in many interior and exterior shots. A large amount of 
black can be balanced with a small highHght deftly positioned. The 
high-key/low-key mood of the frame will dictate styles of composition 
as well as atmosphere. A few strong hght/black contrasts can provide 
very effective visual designs. 

Contrast range 

The eye has a much greater ability than a video camera to see detail in 
shadows through to highlights. One aim of hghting is to create a range 
of tones either to conform to the contrast ratio of film/video or to 
express a production requirement. Although there is a reduction in the 
overall contrast range that can be reproduced in a visual medium, the 
depiction of strong contrasts can stiU be achieved by the use of hght/ 
dark comparisons. 

High contrast creates a sohd separation and good figure/ground 
definition. When size is equal, the hght/dark relationship plays an 
essential part in deciphering which is figure and which is ground. 
Equal areas of light and dark can be perceived as either figure or 

The boundary area of a shape often rehes on a light/dark relation- 
ship. A figure can be separated from its background by backhghting 
its edge. A highlight in the frame will attract the eye and, if it is 
not compositionally connected to the main subject of interest, it will 
compete and divert attention. 


When viewing a film or television image, it is often easy to accept that 
two-dimensional images are a faithful reproduction of the original 
scene. There are many productions (e.g., news, current affairs, sports 
coverage, etc.) where the audience's belief that they are watching a 
truthful representation unmediated by technical manipulation or dis- 
tortion is essential to the credibility of the programme. But many 
decisions concerning exposure involve some degree of compromise 
as to what can be depicted even in 'factual' programmes. In produc- 
tions that seek to interpret rather than to record an event, manipulat- 
ing the exposure to control the look/composition of a shot is an 
important technique. 

As we have discussed, human perception is more complex and adapt- 
able than a video camera. The eye/brain can detect subtle tonal differ- 
ences ranging, for example, from the sHght variations in a white sheet 
hanging on a washing fine on a sunny day to the detail in the deepest 
shadow cast by a building. The highhghts in the sheet may be a 
thousand times brighter than the shadow detail. The TV signal is 
designed to handle (with minimum correction) no more than approx- 
imately 40:1. 

But there is another fundamental difference in viewing a recorded 
image and our personal experience in observing a subject. Frequently, 
a film/TV image is part of a series of images that are telhng a story, 
creating an atmosphere or emotion. The image is designed to manip- 

Lighting and composition 


ulate the viewer's response. Our normal perceptual experience is con- 
ditioned by psychological factors and we often see what we expect to 
see; our response is personal and individual. A storytelUng image is 
designed to evoke a similar reaction in aU its viewers. Exposure plays a 
key part in this process and is a crucial part of camerawork. Decisions 
on what ranges of tones are to be recorded and decisions on lighting, 
staging, stop number - depth-of-field, etc., aU intimately affect how the 
observer relates to the image and to a sequence of images. The 'look' 
of an image is a key production tool and a large element of that look is 
the Ughting treatment. 

Each shot is one amongst many and continuity of the exposure will 
determine how it relates to the preceding and the succeeding images. 
Factors that affect decisions on exposure include: 

the contrast range of the recording medium and viewing condi- 

face tones and maintaining continuity of face tones and their rela- 
tionship to other picture tones; 

the choice of peak white and how much detail in the shadows are 
to be preserved; 

subject priority - what is the principle subject in the frame (e.g., a 
figure standing on a skyline or the sky behind them?); 
what electronic/processing methods of controlhng contrast range 
are used; 

the Hghting technique apphed in controlling contrast; 
staging decisions - where someone is placed affects the contrast 

Characteristics of light 

Like clay in a potter's hand, the four characteristics of Hght: quality 
(hard or soft), direction (frontal, side, back, underht, top ht, etc.), 
source (available artificial or natural light, additional hghts) and col- 
our, can be manipulated by the lighting cameraman to achieve the 
precise requirements for a specific shot. The auto features on a video 
camera are often unable to discriminate the priorities of a shot and 
must be over-ridden, so hkewise, to simply accept the effects of a found 
hghting situation is to disregard the most powerful part of image 
making. Available or 'found' Hght is any combination of dayhght 
and/or artificial light that illuminates any potential location. 


The quality of hght produced by a natural or an artificial light source 
is often categorized as 'hard' or 'soft'. A 'point' source (i.e., a small 
area of light at a distance from the subject) produces a single hard- 
edged shadow of an object. An unobscured sun or moon is a hard light 
source. Hard hghting reveals shape and texture and, when produced 
by a lamp, can be shaped and controlled to faU precisely on the 
required part of the frame. Shadow areas of an image (the absence 
of light or very low light levels) often play an essential part in the 
composition and atmosphere of a shot. Lighter and darker areas 
within the frame help to create the overall composition of the shot 

172 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

and to guide the attention of tlie viewer to certain objects and actions. 
Sliadows on a face reveal structure and cliaracter. 

A soft source of liglit produced by a large area of light (relative to 
the subject) results in many overlapping soft-edged shadows of an 
object and tends to destroy texture. It is not so controllable as hard 
light but is often used to modify the eifect of hard light. For example, 
by bouncing sunlight off a large area reflector to fill-in the shadow 
created by sunhght falhng on the subject. 

How much fight is used and where it is focused also sets the 'key' of 
the image. A shot with a preponderance of high tones and thin sha- 
dows is termed a fiigh-key picture and is usually considered cfieerful 
and upbeat. An image with large areas of dark tones, strong contrast 
and deep shadows is termed a low-key image and appears sombre, 
sinister or mysterious. 


The direction from which any part of an image is lit affects the overall 
composition and atmosphere of a shot. Frequently when setting lamps 
for a shot, the position and therefore the direction of illumination is 
controlled by the perceived 'natural' source of fight (e.g., window or 
table lamp in an interior). 


Early film was lit by natural light. Artificial fight sources were intro- 
duced for greater production flexibifity and economic reliability (e.g., 
to keep filming whatever the weather). A system of fighting faces, often 
the most common subject in feature films, was known as three-point 
lighting. This used a key light to model the face, soft figfit to modify 
the key-light effect and a backlight to separate the face from its back- 
ing. Three-point lighting is stfil extensively practised, although the use 
of a backfigfit has fallen out of fashion in feature film making. The 
quest for a 'natural' look to an image produced a fashion for using 
large areas of bounced fight. Modelfing on a face was reduced or 
eliminated and the overall image produced was softer and less mod- 
elled. To fieighten reafism, and because of the availabifity of very 
sensitive cameras, many sfiots were devised using available light. 
This is often necessary wfien shooting documentaries because not 
only does rigging fights take time and unsettle participants but being 
filmed under brigfit figfits is inhibiting and counter-productive to the 
aim of recording unmediated 'actuality'. 


The fourth aspect of lighting is colour, which is discussed in the next 

Lighting technique 

The lighting director must fulfil a number of requirements when decid- 
ing the fighting treatment for a particular shot. These include: 

Lighting and composition 173 

• practical (explicit) script requirements such as time of day, inter- 
ior/exterior, etc.; 

• providing the right mood or atmosphere (imphcit requirements) - 
interpreting the script and narrative requirements, e.g., high key/ 
low key, etc.; 

• Hghting the action and providing the compositional emphasis 
where it is required in the shot; 

• fulfilling the technical requirements of the medium through the 
control of hghting levels for the required exposure, colour tem- 
perature and contrast range. This can be achieved by a number of 
techniques including base lighting - enough hght on everything in 
the shot that is required to be seen, zone hghting of foreground, 
mid-ground and background, chiaroscuro (see below), etc. 

Lighting and emphasis 

Directing the viewer's attention, emphasizing what is important in the 
frame, is an essential part of the hghting treatment. The position of a 
small, isolated visual element within the frame will achieve dominance 
depending on its relationship to the frame edge, the nature of its back- 
ground and its contrast to its background. Its location within the 
frame will depend on its movement or imphed movement (e.g., direc- 
tion of eye fine). If the subject is offset on one of the intersections of 
thirds (see 'The Rule of Thirds' in Chapter 10) it can achieve composi- 
tional balance by its perceived direction moving into the frame. A 
more dynamic and dissonant arrangement is created by an off-centre 
location with movement towards the nearest edge of frame. 

Usually a dead-centre framing drains the shot of any visual interest 
as there is no dynamic tension between the subject and the frame. 
Likewise, a very eccentric positioning close to the edge of the frame 
requires some compositional reason provided by the method of light- 
ing the subject, or its background. Contrast with the background is 
also a compositional consideration either in colour, brightness level or 
texture to achieve pictorial unity. The tonal values of costume and 
location assist in this emphasis, plus selective focusing. The lighting 
treatment, as well as reveahng information can also conceal informa- 
tion in order to realize a script requirement for mystery, uncertainty, 
confusion, etc. 

Good lighting, like other craft techniques in film and television 
production, is not usually noticed by the audience but it enhances 
the mood and emphasizes the main subject/s whilst avoiding directing 
attention away from the subject. Location Hghting treatment seeks to 
avoid being in conflict with the existing mood of the natural lighting of 
the shot. 

Invisible lighting 

In a more subtle but no less influential way, the use of light by its 
direction, coverage and intensity can be used for pictorial unity and 
subject emphasis as an invisible technique. Invisible in the sense that 
although the lighting direction, intensity and coverage may change 
between long shot and close-up, the hghting design has skilfully 
disguised the changes to maximize the strength of each image. 

174 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

In long shot, the hghting emphasis may be on the atmosphere of 
the room and the subject's relationship with the interior. The lighting 
will help to integrate the composition of figure and background. In 
close shot, the lighting may emphasize features of the face and separ- 
ate subject foreground from background. Broken shadow design on 
the background may be quite different in pattern between long shot 
and close shot in order to accommodate the competing emphasis in 
the individual shots but visual unity is sustained by other lighting 

The lighting effect suggested in each shot may match normal experi- 
ence but, if carefully analysed, could not be achieved in that specific 
situation. The skill of this hghting treatment is to convince and 
persuade the viewer of the naturalness of the artifice. 

Single shot, single camera technique aUows the luxury of tailoring 
composition, hghting and staging to maximize the objective of each 
shot, provided Hghting and other visual continuity detail appears con- 
sistent. An audience can be convinced of time continuity without an 
exact match of every visual element carrying over between each shot. 
A disguised lighting technique allows each shot to be lit to maximize 
effect and audience attention. 

Multi-camera television 

Continuous multi-camera shooting records an exact visual match 
between shots. Body position, lighting and setting carry over automat- 
ically between shots and therefore considerable compromise is often 
necessary between the ideal composition and what is available by 
shooting in real time. The perceived effect of hght relates to the 
angle between the light source and the camera. Ideally a shot is lit 
for one viewpoint whereas multi-camera shooting produces a number 
of viewpoints. It does have the advantage of continuity of performance 
by the actors/presenters and allows the tempo and interpretation to 
unravel/unfold over time without the interruption for new set-ups. 

The three functions of hghting - illumination (illuminance), inter- 
pretation and medium requirements, aU have a bearing on composi- 
tion. High contrast may provide punchy dynamic images but all 
productions do not require to communicate with the dramatic inten- 
sity of 'Hamlet'. Form follows function in lighting as it does in other 
creative activities. 

In 1855, as the arguments raged about the quest for perfect mechan- 
ical reproduction, a photographer, Eugene Durieu, rejected the use of 
light simply as a means of obtaining an exposure. He proposed that 
light could be a means of expression to bring life, mood and modelling 
to an image. He rejected the mechanistic view of image reproduction 
and suggested that 'Imitation is neither the means nor the aim of art. 
The photographer should choose a viewpoint, concentrate interest 
on the principal subject, control the distribution of light and be as 
selective as an artist.' 

The argument has continued ever since with the 'realists' attempting 
to close the gap between audience and action by allowing them to 
identify and become part of the action (e.g., TV soaps, etc.) and 
those who use subjective and fantastic imagery to move, alter or 
change the audience's disposition. 

Lighting and composition 175 

Harmony and contrast 

As we discussed in Chapter 3, the Gestalt theories explain the act of 
perception as a continuous quest to resolve visual confusions, to 
reduce visual ambiguities and to rationalize and explain. The theories 
suggest there is a continuing human drive towards equihbrium - that 
is towards no visual uncertainties. We are unable to switch-off look- 
ing (except by closing our eyes) and therefore there is the constant 
need to understand what we see. The way we achieve understanding 
is to group and organize diversity, to simplify complex images into 
regular patterns and to eliminate, where possible, conflicting readings 
of an image (Figure 13.1). The hghting treatment of a shot has this 

But there is an equal and opposite force at work in this disposition 
towards visual simplicity. As we have seen, continuous perceptual 
attention requires continuous challenges. Perception requires visual 
puzzles to unravel and decode. If the challenge is too great, if the 
viewer is supplied with images that make no sense, Hke a too-difficult 
crossword puzzle, perceptual attention will be discarded once one or 
two clues have proved unsolvable. But if there is no ambiguity in a 
visual image, no uncertainty in the act of perception, if there is a 
surfeit of simplicity and symmetry, attention will drift and a visual 
condition close to sleep will be induced. Attention often requires 
unbalance, visual shock, stimulation and arresting images. 

Although perception seeks visual unity, a detailed visual commun- 
ication requires contrast to articulate its meaning. Morse code can be 
understood if the distinction between dot and dash is accentuated. A 
visual message requires the same accentuation of contrast in order to 
achieve coherent meaning. Light, by supplying contrast of tones, can 
remove visual ambiguity in a muddle of competing subjects but the 
wrong tonal contrast can produce a confused and misleading 'message' 
- the dots and the dashes come close to the same duration and are 


Communication is achieved by contrast. The communication carrier - 
sound or hght - provides a message by modulation. There is a need for 
polarities whether loud or soft, dark or light, dot or dash. Meaning is 
made clear by comparison. 

Light is the perfect medium for modulating contrast. It illuminates 
the subject and is therefore the carrier of the message. Lighting tech- 
nique, as applied in ffim and television production, balances out and 
reduces the contrast ratio to fit the inherent limitations of the medium. 
It therefore contributes in the drive towards perceptual equihbrium by 
creating simplified images. But light is also needed to provide model- 
ling, contrast and tonal differences. In this sense it introduces diversity 
and contrast whilst identifying meaning. 

A dynamic image is one where a visual conflict or tension has been 
set up and then resolved. The ying/yang of visual design is harmony 
and contrast. Compositional harmony created by lighting, appeases 
the perceptual system and therefore facilitates the delivery of the mes- 
sage. Contrast, in a shot created by light, grabs the attention and 
ensures the perceptual system stays switched on to receive the message. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 13.1 The Martyrdom of San 
Sebastian (c. 1475). Pollaiuolo 
uses a triangle and circle grouping 
to simplify a complex image into a 
regular pattern. There is a 
continual perceptual quest to 
organize diversity and to reduce 
visual ambiguities by searching 
for simple patterns (reproduced by 
courtesy of the Trustees, The 
National Gallery, London) 

Hard and soft 

Within a broad generalization, the two quahties of light that are used 
in film and television production are hard and soft. Usually, hard light 
produces the greatest contrast, modelhng and texture. It creates depth, 
shape and relationships. All light, hard or soft, can reveal modelling, 
texture, contrast - it is a matter of shadow structure that determines 
the 'sharpness' of the effects. Diffused hght is often applied to reduce 
the contrast introduced by a hard hght source and to create an inte- 
grated harmony of tones. 

Lighting and composition 


Figure 13.2 Office Party U911), 
Patrick Caulfield. Although 
perception seeks visual unity, a 
detailed visual communication 
requires contrast to articulate its 
meaning. A dynamic image sets 
out a visual conflict or tension and 
a resolution. There is a strong, 
underlying triangular shape in this 
painting which anchors the 
diversity of competing visual 

Past influences 

Artists have frequently been the most acute observers of the effects of 
Ught and its ability to create mood, atmosphere and depth. Film and 
television hghting cameramen have often been influenced by paintings, 
consciously or otherwise, when seeking guides to two-dimensional 

Artists of all periods had sought solutions to the essential paradox 
of pre-contemporary painting, which was how to represent depth on a 
flat surface. They wished to create an illusion of three dimensions 
without revealing the techniques that achieved this deception. The 
successful illusionist persuades the viewer to concentrate their atten- 
tion on what the magician wishes them to see whilst masking or ignor- 
ing the mechanics of how it has been achieved. Invisible technique in 
film and television production works on the same principle. Moving 
images are viewed on a flat surface that can be conceived, depending 
on the Hghting and camera treatment, as a 'window' for the audience 
to look through or alternatively, as a flat surface design. 

In art, there have been many solutions to this dilemma but two 
styles are useful in the study of hght and composition - chiaroscuro 
and Notan. 


Chiaroscuro is the technique of depicting depth by balancing light and 
shadow in a picture. Particular attention is paid to the skill in the 
handhng of shadow. Film and television lighting, on first thought, 
may be conceived as the process of directing Hght to different parts 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 13.3 The Betrothal of the 
Arnolfini (detail), Jan Van Eyck, 
1434, London National Gallery. 
Jan Van Eyke's The Betrothal of 
the Arnolfini is a perfect example 
of how to handle soft bounced 
light. The camera right of the 
groom is much darker than the 
camera right side of the bride's 
face, which has more fill helped 
along by the light kicking up from 
her lace headdress and being 
angled towards the source of the 
light. There are many subtle 
lighting touches throughout the 
frame, from the highlights on the 
chandelier to the higher intensity 
tone of the joined hands - the 
central focus of this marriage 

of the shot. From this perspective, the Ut areas become the dominant 
consideration whereas artists for hundreds of years have known the 
importance of the shadow structure of an image when creating form 
and depth. Positioning lamps to create shadows and withholding light 
from parts of a subject can often be the most important part of a 
lighting treatment. 

Two painters who excelled in chiaroscuro were Caravaggio in the 
early 1600s and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). In Rembrandt's 
paintings there is a dominant light source, often outside the frame, 
which only illuminates selected parts of the subject (see Plate 8). It 
is unsurprising that early on in film making, lighting cameramen 
borrowed Rembrandt's technique in the use of light on faces. 

They adopted a few simple conventions that are still with us today 
and can be summarized as: 

• the key light or main source of natural light is positioned to light 
the side of the face that is furthest from the camera. The side of the 
face to camera is in shadow but modified with a fill or reflected 

• the subject is separated from background either by fight or choice 
of background; 

• preferably the background should contrast with the main subject 
(e.g., fight foreground against dark background or dark fore- 
ground against light background) to maximize attention on the 
main subject; 

• make the subject the brightest or most dominant area in the shot; 

• Rembrandt fighting relies on an appearance of natural fight which, 
in his paintings, frequently comes from outside the camera left of 
the shot; 

• another 'trademark' was his penchant for placing a smaU triangle 
of fight (produced by the shadow of the nose) on the cheekbone of 
the camera right side of face that had detail, although in shadow 
from the main source of fight. 

Other characteristics of fighting in his paintings often copied in film 
work include using only one apparent ligfit source that selectively 
lights only part of the shot. Rembrandt favoured low overall illumina- 

Lighting and composition 179 

tion with the background darker than the main subjects of the picture. 
He achieved this by depicting the main source of light quickly falhng 
away before it reached the background. This distribution of dark 
background and the higher intensity tones of the principal figures 
directs the attention to the main subject of the painting. Using highly 
directional light without the modifying effect of other light sources 
accentuates texture and form. 

Rembrandt or chiaroscuro hghting enhances the three-dimensional 
properties of faces and setting and allows control of space depicted in 
the composition. Controlled hght reaches those parts of the shot that 
are required to advance the story or to provide additional information 
about the main subject. It can be used to express a wide range of 
emotional quahties ranging from dark, sinister, threatening environ- 
ments to the luxurious opulence of ghttering glass and plush velvet 
interiors. When expertly used, it allows complete control of the image, 
providing only that which is required for the shot but still appearing 
natural and unstudied. Looking beyond the main subject in frame, 
good chiaroscuro lighting often subjectively sets the audience's 
response to the narrative. It works on the senses without being obvious 
and sets atmosphere and image intelligibility. Like music, it can create 
mood and meaning with a few carefully chosen highhghts or a few well 
placed shadows. 


Some artists abandoned shadow in the quest to define form. They 
rejected the illusion of depicting depth by the use of a few facile tricks 
in favour of the creation of a surface pattern created by two-dimen- 
sional outline, colour and tone. This emphasis on surface can only 
really be achieved in film and television by soft lighting with the mini- 
mum of cast shadows. This usually means high-key pictures where 
there is a predominance of hght tones. Movement inevitabihty reveals 
some indication of depth and so true flat surface design in TV and film 
images is usually restricted to commercials or music videos, although 
many Technicolour musicals used very flat lighting relying on colour 
and dance to provide pattern. A variation of notan is often used when 
silhouettes are used to withhold information or to increase tension or 

The studio look 

For many years feature films, and later television dramas, were pro- 
duced in studios. Large companies dominated film production up to 
the 1970s and they had a commercial requirement for a specific style 
and type of film they wished to make. A style of hghting developed 
over many decades which lit the subject in sympathy with the demands 
of the script and the demands of glamour. The resulting images may be 
at odds with the perceived hghting realism of the setting (e.g., a win- 
dow as the only source and direction of light may be ignored in a close- 
up) but is sufliciently 'natural' to be accepted in a flow of images. One 
of the main influences on this style of Hghting was the commercial 
pressure to exploit the glamour of the leading players. 

The domination of the star actor/actress in Hollywood feature film 
production created a vocabulary of close-ups (CUs), medium close- 

180 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

ups (MCUs), and over-the-shoulder (O/S) shots to emphasize the star. 
The aim of the lighting cameraman was to make the artiste as hand- 
some or as glamorous as possible. If you could photograph a star well, 
then the star would get you under contract to their particular studio. 

The following quotes from cameramen indicate the influence light- 
ing decisions could have. Cameraman Lee Garmes: Tf the scene aver- 
age light level was 100 ft candles then Dietrich would be ht with 1 10 ft 
candles so that her face was the significant part of the frame.' Charles 
Lang: T had to use a high-key light to narrow Dietrich's cheek bones. 
Claudette Colbert could only be shot one side and therefore sets had to 
be designed for the action to keep that side of face to camera.' 

The creation of the studio look in the 1930s was achieved by a 
strong apprenticeship of assistant cameramen following a specific stu- 
dio style. Technicians worked on whatever they were allocated to but 
the studio system allowed them to work on many films and they there- 
fore developed a range of techniques across a diversity of narrative 
styles. Major studios tended to be known for specific genre films and 
the look of their films foUowed the subject. MGM built a reputation 
for 'glamour', Paramount for 'gloss', Warners for 'hard-edge' gritty 

Multi-camera television broadcast production followed the same 
'industrial' pattern, with television technicians allocated to work on 
a broad range of programmes and techniques, ranging from 'Play of 
the Month' to 'Playschool'. Although there was some speciahsm, most 
camera crews and lighting directors were expected to have the tech- 
niques required to embrace all the diiferent television programme 

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a pursuit for greater reahsm in the 
subject and appearance of many feature films. The story was filmed in 
its natural locations away from studio-built sets. This influenced the 
way the film was Ht. There were competing fighting styles of expres- 
sionism and reahsm. Realism relied on found fighting at the location 
with the minimum of additional lamps. Expressionism was created by 
tight control of hard hght sources in their intensity and position. 


The fashion for high contrast, dynamic graphic images reached its 
apogee in the Film Noir style of the 1940s and 1950s, which had 
been heavily influenced by the earher German expressionist cinema. 
This style of fighting with hard-edge shadows and high contrast has a 
powerful influence on the composition of the shot. Woody Bredell who 
photographed 'The Killers' (1946) suggested that the film was fit in 
order to reduce the detail in the images to the very basic visual infor- 
mation for storytelfing. This was achieved by strong, single-source 
lighting, by slashes of fight, low angles and dark shadows to produce 
stark imagery (see front cover). 

An important function of a hard hght source is to provide shadow 
as well as a lit surface. Dark shadows give an image visual weight. 
High contrast - deep blacks and highlights - strengthen the core mean- 
ing of an image. There is no uncertainty of the principal subject. 
Figure and ground cannot be mistaken. But strong contrast can tip 
over into a crude unappealing simplicity that runs out of interest once 
the initial impact has been absorbed. If the predominant tones of an 

Lighting and composition 181 

image are dark and without highlights, the image can convey mystery 
and suspense and, as used in some television soaps, a form of ersatz 
realism by avoiding any visual indication that is out of keeping with 
the setting (e.g., bright highhghts on hair provided by backhght). But a 
surfeit of low-key reahsm can also induce a visual sense of depression 
leading to indifference. 

The Film Noir period ended with 'A Touch of Evil' (1958). It was 
shot by Russell Metty with extraordinary baroque touches, made at 
the same time as the New Wave was emerging in Paris. 'Touch of Evil' 
anticipated the fluid use of a hand-held camera when Welles had an 
Eclair Cameflex lightweight European camera imported, and it was 
hand-held to great effect in the high contrast interior lit by an external 
flashing neon sign when the Welles' character murders a small town 

This graphic, hard edged, high contrast lighting style controlled the 
composition of the shot. Shadow can be used as mass in a framing to 
balance out other visual elements. The edges between shadow and lit 
areas can be used in the same way as line convergence is used to focus 
attention, create depth or to unite foreground and background. 


Throughout the second half of the twentieth century film speeds 
continued to increase first with black and white negative and later 
with colour. This aUowed filming in most locations without the need 
or requirement to add many additional lamps. To many film makers 
it seemed contradictory to carefully select a location for its atmo- 
sphere and realism and then try to obliterate the location ambience 
by using the same fighting techniques that were available in the 

The French cinematographer Raoul Coutard, when filming Jean- 
Luc Godard's 'A Bout de Souffle' in 1959, took advantage of the 
increased film speed avaflable to shoot the film using natural or 
'found' fight. He took 18-m lengths of Ilford HPS negative sold for 
use in 35 mm still cameras, and cemented them together to make 
120-m rolls for use in a Cameflex film camera. By pushing it in devel- 
opment he had a film that gave him an 800 ASA rating, which allowed 
Goddard to shoot all the location scenes with available fight. Most 
fighting cameramen were not such 'avafiable'-light purists but Coutard 
went on to develop the technique of bounced fight. 

In 'Le Petit Soldat' (1960) Coutard used rows of photoflood reflec- 
tor bulbs attached to the tops of windows and door frames pointing at 
the ceiling. This even spread of soft fight imitates natural light from a 
window in an aU white room with the bonus of no lamp stands or pole- 
cats (scaffold bars) so that an interior can be shot 360°. This technique 
requires a fast film as the light is all reflected, plus there are difficulties 
in getting fight into the actors eyes. 

Bounced fight was seen as more natural and realistic than the sty- 
lized three-point lighting of key, fiU and backfight that was standard in 
many features. It was later adapted for studio work by using large 
polystyrene sheets to bounce light or diffusion was achieved by semi- 
translucent material across the top of the set. 

The increasing use of soft fights as the main source of television 
lighting was facilitated by: 

182 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

• increased CCD sensitivity. When a light is bounced off a poly- 
board, the effective candlepower is reduced by about one-fifth, ft 
was therefore difficult to get the required fighting level with older, 
less sensitive cameras; 

• a growing awareness and fashion for more natural, soft lit images, 
and the developing technique to handle 'soft' fighting; 

• the increasing availabifity of equipment such as special soft ligfits, 
fluorescent ligfits, etc. 

Controlled lighting and composition 

One of the main values of fight in relation to composition is the ability 
to accentuate tonal differences and provide balance or visual unity. 
Compositional design using fight sources relies on control of light 
direction. Keeping light off surfaces in the field of view can be as 
important for the composition of the shot as controlfing where the 
ligfit will fall. Witfi bounced ligfit this becomes more difficult. Soft 
ligfit by definition will spread a wash of fight across afi of the action 
and other visual design methods to control composition have to be 

Modulating the ligfit pattern of a shot introduces selective contrast 
and this is best achieved by a hard fight source. But the degree and 
extent of the artificial contrast or range of tonal values in an image 
tfiat is introduced by tfie selective positioning of lamps gives rise to 
arguments about styles of ligfiting. 

'Realistic' fighting aims to replicate naturally occurring ligfit 
sources, whether sunhght or fight naturally found in interiors or exter- 
iors. As an objective, it is nearly always compromised because of the 
technical considerations of the recording medium. Intercutting 
between a subject in full frontal sunlight facing a subject who has 
only naturally occurring reflected fight wifi produce an obvious mis- 
match. Nearly afi subjects illuminated by naturally occurring ligfit 
sources will need some lighting modification, even if it is simply resta- 
ging their positions to reduce the worst excesses of uncontrolled fight. 

Naturalism and found light 

Naturally occurring ligfit sources do not discriminate between import- 
ant and unimportant visual elements ascribed to tfiem by individuals. 
It is the human mind in the act of perception that attaches relevance to 
one image as opposed to another. The quest by some fighting designers 
to replicate naturally occurring ligfiting effects is at odds witfi most 
visual communication sucfi as scripted drama, information, etc., which 
aims, by selective production techniques, to focus on one aspect in 
order to communicate a specific message. 'Realistic' ligfiting (i.e., 
everyday random and fiaphazard illumination) will require modifica- 
tion not only to conform to the technical requirements of the medium 
(e.g., contrast range, minimum exposure, etc.) but also as part of the 
overall production strategy to be selective in the message produced. 

Film and television production is selective in order to communicate. 
Naturally occurring light illuminates impartially every surface witfiin 

Lighting and composition 183 

its orbit, making no judgements and exercising no discretion. Tliis is 
the visual equivalent of the image produced from an unmanned, static 
security camera. One victory for the advocates of natural light was the 
gradual disappearance of the strong, glossy hair backUght that had 
been a staple of Hollywood glamour Ughting for so many years. 

Diffused light technique was used in a move away from what many 
saw as the 'unrealistic' contrast introduced by hard hght sources. 
These selectively Ht aspects of a subject and setting, especially in 
what was considered the artificial and mannered three-point portrait 
lighting system where every face had a key, fill and backlight. Diffused 
light often eliminates strong modelling and the separation of planes 
that indicate depth. It may be difficult to separate foreground/ back- 
ground without some form of backhght or hard light emphasis on 
selective areas of the frame and therefore the illusion of depth is 
diminished. The direction and selective coverage of soft light is more 
difficult to control and therefore inevitably there is less control of tone 
and mass in a composition. As we have discussed earlier, strong con- 
trast can emphasize meaning and provide attention-grabbing dynamic 
images but at the cost of appearing mannered, artificial or, in a word, 
unreahstic. In normal everyday perception we seldom encounter 
strong, unequivocal visual statements but neither do we view the 
world within a frame, without normal binocular depth perception 
and being subjected to rapid changes of image size. Any two-dimen- 
sional depiction of reaUty begins with selection and the drive towards 
lighting 'realism' is only partly modifying the inherently artificial 
representation of a television or film image. 

Television lighting 

Television technology has been a constant quest to design equipment 
that would accurately reproduce the colour and contrast range of the 
subject in shot. For many years, video picture making avoided any 
technique that 'degraded' the image i.e., altered the fidelity of the 
electronic reproduction. The aim was to Ught and expose for the full 
range of the video signal and transmit pictures that had good blacks, 
detail in the highhghts and with the highest resolution the TV system 
was capable of providing, particularly to viewers receiving pictures in 
poor reception areas. The technical constraints on both contrast range 
and resolution were the regulations governing the rationing of band- 
width. Attempts to improve resolution were by adding electronic 
enhancement, which gave video pictures their characteristic 'edge' 
appearance on dark-to-hght and hght-to-dark tonal transitions. 

The production methods of the television industry had to be struc- 
tured to provide endless hours of live and recorded programming. The 
majority of such programming was topical, instantly consumed and 
therefore had budgets to match the endless appetite of 24-hour televi- 
sion. Very fast shooting schedules, low budget production methods 
were added to the edgy, low contrast stereotypical TV image displayed 
on small receivers watched in conditions of high ambient hght. Video 
images struggled to match film quality and the difference was rein- 
forced by the engineering 'sanctity' of reproduction fidehty. This was 
in sharp contrast with the photographic and film mediums, which 

184 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

often attempted to customize the image to suit a particular emotional 
or aesthetic effect. In this approach, the camera was not a 'scientific' 
instrument faithfully observing reality, but the means of creating a 
subjective impression. Up to the introduction of digital television, 
this technique practised for many decades in film had made little 
impact on television programme making. Either production content 
was unsuitable for subjective images or the degree that an analogue 
signal could be customized to express mood or atmosphere was limited 
by the needs of terrestrial broadcasting. 

Any two from cheap, good or fast - but not all 

Television lighting for many years concentrated on the need to satisfy 
the technical requirements of the medium because of the historical 
limitations of electronic pictures. Film fighting on small budgets was 
more adventurous. 'We used a lot of long focal length lenses, smoke 
and nets. That's the best, maybe the only way to make no money look 
interesting. You discount the background, focus on a long (focal 
length) lens, and isolate the subject.' This appears to sum up many 
of the difficulties and solutions that fighting fias to deal with. No 
money, smaU budgets, limited time, means that lighting requires the 
imaginative use of available resources. 

For most of the time, additional lamps are not required to achieve 
adequate exposure on exteriors. With claims of low-fight cameras 
down to 1 lux, the proverbial black cat in a coal cellar can still be 
noisily seen by screwing up the gain and keeping the coal cellar door 
open. To over-generalize, in the past, film lighting concentrated on the 
need to interpret and give atmosphere to an image, whereas television 
lighting was often constrained by the demands of working in a low- 
cost, mass-produced market. 

Expressing an idea through an image 

The challenge to TV video production lighting is to match the film and 
photographic ability to customize the image to suit the message. The 
look of the shot is not just a good transmitter picture with every shot 
containing a reference black and a full contrast range up to a peak 
white. Video has progressed beyond the point where simply achieving 
a good engineering picture was the principle aim of lighting. Lighting 
to achieve the production aims has been the crucial objective for years 
but has often been difficult to achieve with a transmitted analogue 

The quest for video technological perfection is not quite accom- 
plished, but single camera digital production allows the potential for 
customizing the image to match the production aims. We have reached 
a point where achieving a technically acceptable picture without 
imperfections is less a craft than a routine. 

TV lighting is not an engineering activity and in that sense there is 
no objective 'right' way. There are formulas but, without doubt, fight- 
ing is much more of a craft than a science. With the potential to 

Lighting and composition 185 

control and customize the video image tiirougli set-up cards, and with 
digital resolution good enough to almost dispense with image enhance- 
ment, there is every possibihty that the elusive 'film look' will more 
and more depend on budget and production schedules than the inher- 
ent characteristics of the electronic image. 

Decorative lighting 

The move from tube to CCD cameras coincided with the development 
of a greater range of computer-controlled moving fight sources. Many 
quizzes, pop music and variety programmes and some film musicals 
require very bold and decorative lighting treatments for the wide shots. 
Lighting directors were called upon, in effect, to design sets that were 
almost completely dependent on in-vision lamps and self-illuminating 
features built into the set. The digital CCD cameras could handle more 
saturated colours and more extreme contrasts. Moving lighting fix- 
tures and moving mirror fixtures were initially used for live concert 
performances and discos and then wagghng hght beams gave way to 
using the gobos and projection features of the fixtures. A new high- 
tech lighting look emerged that was glitzy, smart and appeared expen- 
sive. The budget, of course, dictates how many fixtures can be hired, 
the time and manpower available for the rig and the time available to 
set, programme and exploit aU of the lighting rig's potential. Another 
useful innovation was the auto pilot system allowing moving hghts to 
follow a performer via a small transmitter around the stage. 
Decorative hghting is often the visual image of the shot rather than 
fighting the subject of the shot. 


The most important element in the visual design of film and television 
images is light. Apart from its fundamental role of illuminating the 
subject, light determines tonal differences, outhne, shape, colour, tex- 
ture and depth. It can create compositional relationships, provide 
balance, harmony and contrast. It provides mood, atmosphere and 
visual continuity. Light is the key visual force and is therefore central 
to any consideration of visual composition. 

Although perception seeks visual unity, a detailed visual communi- 
cation requires contrast to articulate its meaning. Light, by supplying 
contrast of tones, can remove visual ambiguity in a muddle of compet- 
ing subjects. 

A dynamic image is one where a visual conflict or tension has been 
set up and then resolved. The ying/yang of visual design is harmony 
and contrast. Harmony, appeases the perceptual system and therefore 
facilitates the delivery of the message. Contrast grabs the attention and 
ensures the perceptual system stays switched on to receive the message. 

Within a broad generalization, two quahties of Hght are used in film 
and television production - hard and soft. Hard fight produces con- 
trast, modelling and texture. It creates depth, shape and relationships. 
Diffused light is often applied to reduce the contrast introduced by a 
hard fight source and to create an integrated harmony of tones. 



How the eye sees colour 

Colour vision is made possible by cones on the retina of the eye, which 
respond to different colours. The cones are of three types sensitive to 
certain bands of Ught - either green, red or blue. The three responses 
combine so that, with normal vision, all other colours can be dis- 
cerned. There is a wide variation in an individual's receptor response 
to different colours but many tests have established an average 
response (see Figure 14.1). 

Colour television adopts the same principle by using a prism 
behind the lens to split the light from a scene into three separate 
channels. Colour analysis in the camera will give the appropriate red, 
green and blue signals according to the spectral energy distribution 
of the colour being observed. A fourth signal, called the luminance 
signal, is obtained by combining proportions of the red, green and 
blue signals. It is this signal that allows compatibility with a mono- 
chrome display. The amplitude of the luminance signal at any 
moment is proportional to the brightness of the particular picture 
element being scanned. Colour film negative uses a similar filter 
technique to expose different layers of emulsion to the different col- 
ours of the spectrum. 

A TV colour signal is an electrical representation of the original 
scene processed and reproduced on a TV display monitor. The fidelity 
of the displayed colour picture to the original colours will depend on 
the analysis characteristics of the light splitting block and the linear 
matrix of the video camera, which are designed and adjusted to be 
displayed on the appropriate phosphor characteristics of the display 
tube, all of which collectively take into account, and accurately repro- 
duce the average human perceptual response to colour. In practice, the 
available phosphor compounds that are employed in tube manufac- 
ture determine the selection and handling of the television primary 
colour signals needed to provide accurate perceptual response to a 
displayed colour picture. 



500 600 

Wavelength (nanometres) 


Figure 14.1 Thomas Young (1773- 
1829) was one of the first people 
to propose the three-colour theory 
of perception. By mixing three 
lights widely spaced along the 
spectrum he demonstrated that he 
could produce any colour (and 
white) visible in the spectrum by a 
mixture of three, but not less than 
three, lights set to appropriate 
intensities. The choice of suitable 
wavelengths to achieve this is 
quite wide and no unique set of 
three wavelengths has been 
established. The average three 
colour sensitive cones in the eye 
have the response curves 
displayed here, and all spectral 
colours are seen by a mixture of 
signals from the three systems 

White balance 

In colorimetry it is convenient to tiiink of white being obtained from 
equal amounts of red, green and blue light. This concept is continued 
in colour cameras. When exposed to a white surface (neutral scene), 
the three signals are matched to the green signal to give equal amounts 
of red, green and blue. This is known as white balance. The actual red, 
green and blue Hght emitted when white is displayed on a colour tube 
are in the proportion of 30 per cent red lumens, 59 per cent green 
lumens and 1 1 per cent blue lumens. 

Although the eye adapts if the colour temperature illuminating a 
white subject alters, there is no adaptation by the camera and the three 
video amplifiers have to be adjusted to ensure they have unity output. 
Because the colour temperature of different light sources and mixtures 
of light sources varies, it is essential to select the correct filter and 
white-balance the camera whenever you suspect a change has 
occurred. When there is a change in the colour temperature of the 
Hght illuminating a potential shot it is necessary to adjust the white 
balance of the camera. The fidehty of colour reproduction is depen- 
dent on the white-balance procedure. If required, the white balance 
can be deliberately adjusted so that overall the pictures are warmed 
up to a straw colour or cooled to a bluish tint. This customizing is 
frequently irreversible and so more extreme colour effects should be 
left to post-production where the depth and appearance of the image 
can be assessed on Grade A monitors. 






Figure 14.2 Additive colour 
system. Nearly the whole range of 
colours can be produced by 
adding together, in various 
proportions, light sources of the 
three primary wavelengths. This is 
known as additive colour 
matching. Some colours that the 
eye can perceive plot outside the 
triangle and can not be combined 
by the use of the three chosen 
primaries unless the application of 
'negative' light is employed in the 
camera processing circuits. Given 
that the tube phosphor and the 
'average' perceptual response to 
colour remains unchanged, the 
fidelity of colour reproduction will 
be determined by the design of 
the circuits handling the mixture 
of the three colour signals 

Colour correction 

A fundamental problem with location work is deahng with a mixture 
of hght of different colour temperatures. If the hght remains uncor- 
rected, faces and subjects may have colour casts that look unnatural 
and distracting. The two most common light sources on location are 
dayhght, which has a range of colour temperatures but averages 
around 5600 K, and tungsten light, which is often produced by 
lamps carried to the location that are approximately 3200 K. 

Colour correction filters 

There are two basic types of correction filter used when attempting to 
combine mixed lighting of tungsten and daylight: 

1. an orange filter, which converts dayhght to tungsten and is most 
often seen attached to windows for interior shots; 

2. a blue filter, which converts tungsten to daylight and is often used 
on tungsten lamps. 

Any correction filter will reduce the amount of light it transmits and 
therefore a balance must be struck between colour correction and 
sufficient hght for adequate exposure. A filter for full colour conver- 
sion from dayhght to tungsten will have a transmission of only 55 per 
cent, which means nearly half of the available light is lost. A filter for 
full colour correction from tungsten to daylight has an even smaller 

188 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

transmission factor of 34 per cent - it cuts out nearly two-tliirds of tlie 
possible light from a lamp. This is a more serious loss because whereas 
dayhght is usually more than adequate for a reasonable exposure, 
reducing the light output of a lamp by blue filtering to match daylight 
may leave an interior lit by blue filtered lamps short of adequate light. 

Altering the colour balance 

As well as colour correction filters on lens or lamp, both film and video 
use filters to adjust colour response. These include filters that give an 
overall tint to the shot and graduated (grads) filters, which help to 
control bright skies by having a graduated neutral density from the top 
to clear filter at the bottom - the graduation can be obtained as a hard 
or a soft transition. There are also filters with a graduated tint to 
colour skies or the top part of the frame. They are positioned in the 
matte box for optimum effect but, once adjusted, the camera can rarely 
be tilted or panned on shot without disclosing the filter position. There 
are also skin tone warmers to improve close-ups of faces. This can also 
be achieved electronically. 


Both film and video can achieve significant changes in the colour 
appearance of images in post-production. Video has a huge range of 
post-production effects available. Film production can grade a nega- 
tive or a print in processing or when dubbed to video for electronic 
post production. 

Colour as subject 

Twentieth-century painting has often employed colour as the primary 
means of visual communication. In their relationship within a frame, 
colours provide their own kind of balance, contrast, rhythm, structure, 
texture and depth, independent of any recognizable figurative subject 
that may be defined in terms of fine or tone. Colour not only has a 
profound influence on composition, in many forms of image making it 
is the subject of the composition. 

The importance of colour to express emotional states or to create 
sensations of movement and space has not always been recognized. Up 
to the early Renaissance period, colour was considered by many art 
patrons as an embelhshment to a painting to be selected from a list of 
expensive pigments. Colour was added as a beautifying agent and 
priced accordingly. For many years, painters blocked in the main 
structure of a painting primarily in line and tone. Colour was used 
to supplement the hnear and tonal expression of ideas. Although 
painters began to appreciate the expressive use of colour, the scientific 
investigation into colour theory by Goethe, Helmholtz, Chevreul and 
others in the nineteenth century provided the stimulus to reinforce or 
confirm many painter's intuitive understanding of the effects of colour. 
Eventually, the optical sensations of colour were fascinating enough to 
be able to provide the very subject matter of a picture. 

Colour 189 


Both film and TV began as a black and white medium. In fact, film 
began with no colour, no sound and with very little if any camera 
movement. The ability to record infinite detail mechanically and the 
novelty of its 'realism' compensated the photographic image for its 
lack of colour. Television, by adding the ability to witness an event as 
it occurred, wherever it occurred, could also compensate for the 
absence of colour. 

The legacy of monochrome television 

The gradual transition in the 1960s to colour broadcasting and the 
gradual replacement of black and white receivers with near universal 
colour reception left behind one legacy of monochrome television. 
Nearly all broadcast television cameras are fitted, as standard, with 
monochrome viewflnders. There are exceptions, but the majority of 
cameras in daily use up to, and including the introduction of high- 
definition equipment, use monochrome viewfinders to acquire the 
basic material for colour television. 

Camera manufacturers explain this paradox as their inabiUty, so far, 
to provide a 1.5" monocular colour viewfinder with sufficient resolu- 
tion, added to their claim that the cost of doing so would be prohibi- 
tive. Despite the vast technological changes that have occurred with 
the development of television cameras in the last 50 years, the one 
consistent technique that has remained unchanged has been the need 
for cameramen to use a monochrome viewfinder even when composing 
colour pictures. 

The spread of the DV camera into broadcasting has brought with it 
the colour hquid crystal display (LCD) viewfinder, which is often fitted 
as standard. With these viewfinders, colour can now be seen as integral 
to the composition of the shot instead of the need for a mental note to 
remind oneself to take colour into consideration when framing up 
using a monochrome viewfinder. 

Optical viewfinders on film cameras have always provided the 
opportunity to check the influence of colour on the shot. 

Problems associated with monochrome viewfinders 

One of the most common misconceptions with this situation is that 
there is no need for a colour viewfinder except where colour differen- 
tiation is necessary, for example sports coverage, snooker, etc. The 
camera manufacturers believe that the viewfinder is simply there to 
be used for focus and what they term 'the adjustment of the picture 

The fact that colour plays a significant part in picture composition is 
either ignored or conveniently becomes the responsibility of other 
technicians in the television production chain. After 30 years of transi- 
tion from monochrome to colour, cameramen remain the last group of 
black-and-white viewers. 

The result of framing a composition in monochrome often results in 
the over-reUance on tone, mass and Hnear design as the main ingredi- 
ent of the composition. If a colour monitor is accessible, then adjust- 

190 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

ment can be made for the colour component of the shot but only too 
often, the frame of reference for the composition is the monochrome 
viewfinder or a small portable low quality colour monitor. Colours of 
similar brightness such as red and the darker shades of green merge 
and may be indistinguishable in the monochrome viewfinder and yet, 
as separate hues, they exercise a strong influence on the composition 
(see Plates 4 and 5). Saturated red and blue appear much darker in a 
monochrome viewfinder than their brightness value in colour. A small 
saturated colour against a complementary background has a much 
greater impact in colour than its viewfinder reproduction. 

To some extent monochrome pictures are more abstract than colour 
and the effect of the image is different from our normal colour percep- 
tion. The image can be more streamlined if only tone and line are 
considered as compositional elements. Many years ago, film camera- 
men, after years of black-and-white photography, had difficulty in 
adjusting to the complexity of colour composition compared with 
the simplicity and control of monochrome. When using orthocromatic 
black and white film stock, they would often use a pan glass when 
converting to panchromatic film to assess how the colour tones would 
reproduce in monochrome. Some still photographers prefer to avoid 
colour in order to emphasize the form and shape of an image. 

Using a monochrome viewfinder, video operators have the reverse 
problem. They must assess how a monochrome viewfinder image is 
converting a colour image and if there are colour components in the 
image unseen in colour in the viewfinder that will disrupt a mono- 
chrome composition. 

It is possible to demonstrate that a video image has been composed 
in monochrome by switching out the colour on the receiver. It is 
surprising how much strength is reintroduced into a shot that was 
originally composed in black and white when the colour content is 
removed. The reverse can also be seen when a shot could have been 
improved if a colour viewfinder had been available in order to actively 
use colour in the composition in addition to line and tone. 

A flat lit scene viewed in black and white gives the impression of 
lack of contrast and punch whereas the same scene in colour may be 
much more acceptable than the monochrome rendering suggests. A 
shot lit with predominantly red light has very little contrast and low 
modulation when viewed through a monochrome viewfinder. This 
often provokes an unnecessary struggle by the cameraman using a 
monochrome viewfinder to provide dynamic compositions using 
mass and fine, which is quite unnecessary when the same shot is viewed 
in colour (see Plates 6 and 7). 

Contrasty fighting may provide compositions with more impact 
whereas overcast fight may give flat black-and-white pictures, 
although the colour content may help to separate subject material. 
In a monochrome viewfinder the lack of contrast dilutes the visual 
strength and without strong light/dark relationships the composition 
may often appear to be lacking balance or emphasis. If rehance is 
placed on monochrome viewfinder compositions, some colour com- 
binations may have a striking dissimilarity to the balanced black-and- 
white compatible image. 

Composing with a monochrome viewfinder results in emphasizing 
contrast, mass and usually the convergence of lines. Colour becomes 
simply the accidental effect of individual objects within the frame 

Colour 191 

rather than the conscious grouping and locating of colour within the 
frame. The weight of colour elements are not used to balance the 
composition and can frequently unbalance the considered mono- 
chrome composition of tone and Hne. 

Colour and composition 

The faithful reproduction of colour requires techniques to ensure that 
the specific colours of a scene are reproduced accurately and colour 
continuity requires that the same colours are identically reproduced in 
succeeding shots. This is often a basic requirement in most types of 
camerawork but colour as an emotional influence in estabHshing 
atmosphere or in structuring a composition, also plays a vital role in 
visual communication. 

Terms used to describe colour can sometimes lead to confusion. In 
this account: 

• hue refers to the dominant wavelength - the colour we see; 

• value is a measurement of reflectivity on a scale of 1-10; 

• saturation is the purity of the colour. 

The perceived hue of any coloured object is likely to vary depending 
on the colour of its background and the colour temperature of the 
light illuminating it. Staging someone in a yeUow jacket against green 
foHage wfll produce a different contrast relationship to staging the 
same person against a blue sky (see Plates 2 and 3). 

There appears to be a reduction in the perception of 'colourfulness' 
under a duU overcast sky. The muted effect on colour under diffused 
fight can often aUow colours to blend and provide a softer pastel 
relationship and a satisfactory picture, whereas the lack of contrast 
may produce flat, drab monochrome images. 

Sunlight raises the general level of illumination and provides a direc- 
tional fight that, reflected off coloured objects, tends to increase the 
'colourfulness' of a scene compared with the diffuse fight of an over- 
cast sky. A proportion of directional fight is reflected as white specular 
from glossy surfaces and increases the impact of colour. The hard 
modelfing and greater contrast make the scene look more 'alive'. 

The perceptual impact of a coloured object is not consistent but is 
modified by the quafity of the figfit illuminating it, by reflection, shad- 
ow and by its relationship with surrounding colours. 

Balancing a composition with colour 

Balance in a composition depends on the distribution of visual weight. 
Mass, relative brightness, line and the psychological importance of a 
visual element can all be structured to provide visual unity in an image 
and to provide a route for the eye to travel in order to emphasize the 
most important element. Colour can be used to balance and to unify 
an image in many ways (see Plate 7). 

An out-of-focus single hued object within the frame (e.g., red), often 
exerts a strong influence in the composition and may distract attention 
from the main subject. 

192 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Light/dark relationships 

As we have seen, the eye is attracted to the hghtest part of an image or 
that part of the image which has the greatest contrast and if colour is 
reproduced as a grey scale, yellow, after white, is the brightest colour. 
Depending on their backgrounds, a small area of yeUow, for example, 
will carry more visual weight than a small area of blue. When balan- 
cing out a composition attention should be paid to the relative bright- 
ness of colour and its location within the frame. 

Cold/warm contrast 

Many colours have a hot or a cold feel to them. Red is considered hot 
and blue is thought of as cold. People disagree about how hot or how 
cold a particular colour may be but the general perceptual consensus is 
that hot colours advance and cold colours recede. This has a composi- 
tional significance of colour as a depth indicator and affects the con- 
trol of the principal subject. It wiU take other strong design elements 
within a shot to force a foreground blue object to exist in space in front 
of a red object. 

The eye naturally sees red as closer than blue unless the brightness, 
shape, chroma value and background of the blue is so arranged that in 
context it becomes more dominant than a desaturated, low brightness 
red. Colour effects are relative and no one set of guidehnes will hold 
true for all colour relationships. For example, the intensity of a hot 
colour can be emphasized by surrounding it by cool colours. The 
intensity of the contrast will affect balance and to what part of the 
frame the eye is attracted. 

Strong prolonged stimulation of one colour has the effect of 
decreasing the sensitivity to that colour but sensitivity to its comple- 
mentary is enhanced. Looking at a saturated red, for example, for 
some time and then shifting the gaze to a grey area will provoke a 
sensation of blue-green. This effect of successive contrast is a result of 
a process of adaptation by the cones and rods in the eye. Intercutting 
with shots containing strong saturated primaries may give rise to 
'after' images of complementary colours (see Plate 1). 

Colour symbolism 

There have been a number of theories based on general colour asso- 
ciation concerning the symbohsm of colour. Hollywood cameraman 
Villorio Storaro used his own colour theory in shooting 'The Last 
Emperor' (1987), where he equated different colours with different 
moods or atmospheres. The shots at the beginning of the Forbidden 
City and the family were predominantly orange. He used yellow for 
personal growth of the young emperor and the realization of personal 
identity. YeUow was also the royal colour of the Chinese. Yellow 
dissolved to green with the arrival of the tutor - the arrival of knowl- 

Nestor Almendros used the 'magic hour', that moment of the day 
when the sun has left the sky and the earth and the sky are bathed in a 
golden light. There were barely 25 minutes each day of this quaUty of 
light to shoot the film 'Days of Heaven' (1978) but it was considered 

Colour 193 

that the contribution of the emotional quahty of the hght was worth 
the extra budget required. 


Balance in a composition depends on the distribution of visual weight. 
Colour can be used to balance and to unify an image in many ways. 

If the weight of colour elements is ignored (or unseen), it can fre- 
quently unbalance the considered monochrome composition of tone 
and Une. 

A composition framed in monochrome may result in the over-reli- 
ance on tone, mass and Hnear design as the main ingredients of the 

Colour not only has a profound influence on composition, in many 
forms of image making, it is often the subject of the composition. 

The perceptual impact of a coloured object is not consistent but is 
modified by the quahty of the light illuminating it, by reflection, shad- 
ow and by its relationship with surrounding colours. 

The individual response to colour may be a product of fashion and 
culture, or it may be an intrinsic part of the act of perception. 



Introduction to staging 

If light is the dominant influence on picture composition, staging per- 
formance, action, actors and props in relationship to a setting is at the 
heart of all film and television production. What people do as well as 
what they say is equally important in a visual medium. The interpreta- 
tion of a narrative is initially the combined task of writer, director and 
performer. Making it all meaningful within a frame is often achieved 
by the combined skills of director and cameraman. It is difificult to 
separate out the distinctions between a performance and the visual 
treatment of a production. A successful project is seen as a succession 
of significant images and action but there are also many other craft 
skiUs in the realization of a production such as editing, sound, design, 
costume, make-up, etc. They aU have a essential input in staging and 
composition and to adequately cover their role would require many 

The relationship between people can be estabhshed quickly by their 
position in a frame and how they are staged in depth. In many ways, 
using pictures to tell a story is the quickest and most effective way to 
establish motive, response, mood, point of view, and ah the other 
myriad feelings that can be expressed by the face or body attitude. 
All these aspects of staging are in the director's domain but camera 
movement, camera position and choice of lens all influence production 
decisions. This chapter deals with a few considerations when staging 
for shot composition, but it far from exhausts aU aspects of production 
decisions when staging action. 

Where shall I stand? 

Throughout this book, phrases have been used such as pictorial 
unity, balanced composition, emphasizing the main subject of inter- 
est, etc. Nowhere is this search for picture integration more common- 

Staging 195 

place and exacting than in tlie figure/background staging dilemma. 
As many film and television images consist of faces or figures in a 
setting, much of the time, cameramen are involved in finding solu- 
tions to the visual problem of combining a foreground subject with 
its background. 

We discussed in the figure/ground section (Chapter 13) how the 
main subject of interest in an image cannot exist without a back- 
ground and that often there must be some visual design method to 
connect the main subject to its 'ground' even though this may be 
featureless. A plain backing may be sufficient to emphasize the sub- 
ject, but more usually there is a need to set the subject in context - to 
provide a setting that will reinforce or comment on the subject. The 
content of the setting provides atmosphere, mood and information 
and acts as a powerful reinforcer of the presentation of the main 
subject of interest. A low camera angle often helps to make the 
foreground subject dominant and cuts the presenter away from his/ 
her background but it can be unflattering. Equally important is the 
integration of the background with the main subject to provide a 
unified image. 

What is staging? 

Blocking movement or staging action refers to the initial setting up 
of a shot where actor/presenter position and movement is plotted. 
With the single camera/single shot technique, the complete action for 
the shot can be seen before camera position, camera movement and 
lens is decided and the final framing agreed. This should achieve the 
precise composition that is required because a great deal of control 
can be exercised in the positioning of actor/presenter to background 
and the control of background. Essentiafly, the visual elements that 
make up the shot can be arranged to achieve the objective of the 

This is not dissimilar to the methods painters use to achieve an 
integrated image. Apart from those few artists who strive for a perfect 
replication of the scene in view, the design of a painting is achieved by 
control of the chosen visual components, placing every element where 
it works for the complete composition. 

Although there has always been a great deal of discussion on what 
constitutes good design, artists have more control over the design of 
their painting than a cameraman because they have the abihty to 
fashion each visual element to enhance the unity of the image. 

Unless the style of painting requires a literal record of the field of 
view, artists have the ability to arrange and rearrange the painted area 
so that overall, they achieve the composition they are searching for. 
Although a great deal of image manipulation can be achieved with lens 
and camera position, in general, cameramen have to deal with a 
Tound' visual situation and attempt by fighting and actor positioning 
to achieve visual control of the whole frame. 

In the mid-nineteenth century, early photographers had ambitions 
to control all the elements of a photographic image and spent a great 
deal of time setting up and copying academic compositions borrowed 
from painting. The results were unconvincing, posed freeze frames that 

196 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

soon dropped out of fashion along with the style of paintings they 
were attempting to emulate. 

Film and television have the added compositional element of subject 
movement and the tradition of recording the 'real' world. With a few 
exceptions, the majority of narrative film and television productions 
stage the dreams, fantasies and desires of the protagonists in the 
dramas against recognizable slices of location or set. Even though 
the plots may involve bizarre and fantastic developments, in general, 
they are played out against settings that contain sohd, known objects 
easily identified by the audience. 

Visual storytelling therefore has the requirement for tightly 
designed images created in the choice of set design, costume, 
makeup, staging, Hghting and camera angle. With such a degree of 
control, the imphcation is that every image chosen is the result of a 
production decision. There should be no lucky accidents, although 
the history of film and television camerawork has numerous exam- 
ples to the contrary. 

The American cinematographer Conrad Hall, for example, noticed 
when setting up a shot for 'In Cold Blood' (1967), that Hght passing 
through artificial rain dripping down a set window threw a shadow of 
a 'tear' rolHng down the cheeks of the artiste in close-up who was 
remembering his past (sad) life. This simple visual accident was imme- 
diately incorporated into the shot. Gordon WilHs shooting 'The 
Godfather' (1972) used top lighting to help reduce Brando's heavy 
jowls. This resulted in Brando's eyes being in shadow and intensified 
the menace of the character. 

Staging action for a number of television cameras to shoot continu- 
ously, however, often requires a great deal of compromise between the 
ideal for each shot and what in practice can be achieved. Multi-camera 
television coverage requires pre-planning of set or location set design, 
lighting and a camera script with details of all planned shots. For 
complex programmes such as drama, there will also be extensive 
pre-rehearsal of artistes involved where interpretation and action is 
devised and plotted. 

Once in the studio or at the location, each shot will be blocked and 
then a run through of the scene will test the practicalities and the 
problems of the camera script. With continuous multi-camera shoot- 
ing, there is not a great deal of adjustment available for the optimum 
positioning of actor and background. Any repositioning of the actor 
for one camera will affect the framing of another camera. Reasonable 
compromises are sought but the perfection of the single shot/single 
camera framing are often not a practical option. A dozen small correc- 
tions that would have been made for single camera shooting such as 
lighting, background set changes and artist positioning are not always 
possible if continuous action is covered by multi-cameras. The ten- 
dency in multi-camera television shooting is for shot size to have 
greater importance and precedence over the search for the integrated 
image that is possible with single shot recording. 

Framing up a shot of inanimate objects is easier and involves finding 
the right position in space for the lens with the right lens angle and 
then devising the lighting, balance and frame. If the visual elements in 
the frame are small enough to rearrange, then good composition can 
be achieved by placing each item in an optimum position for visual 

Staging 197 

Staging people and staging action 

If good composition can only be acliieved by control of the visual 
elements, how is it possible to reorder the visual elements in a shot 
to create a dynamic composition? In the chapter on perspective 
(Chapter 4), we discussed ways of adjusting the camera-to-subject 
relationship in order to produce dynamic compositions. Control of 
the skeleton of the picture can be ordered by choice of lens, camera 
position and camera distance from subject. 

Frequently, in television and film, the principal subjects in the frame 
are people. In a controlled situation where the artiste can be positioned 
in relationship to the lens, there is frequently an optimum position that 
gives the best composition with that specific background and artiste. 
Best in this context means the most appropriate relationships for the 
message that is to be communicated. 

A common relationship in television news/factual programming is 
the reporter with the 'over my left shoulder World War Three has just 
broken out' shot. This combination of reporter delivering a piece to 
camera with the suggestion or flavour of the content of the piece in 
the background is commonplace but frequently produces awkward 

If the reportage concerns a civil catastrophe or strong visual activity 
in the background, then a combined image will result in divided inter- 
est between reporter and the background event. What may be intended 
as background 'atmosphere' for the 'piece to camera' often develops 
into a split screen with a double shot obhging the viewer to constantly 
shift their attention between foreground and background. The two 
centres of interest - reporter and background - are usually caused 
because of the tight framing of the reporter. The close size of shot 
and the talking to camera creates a separation, a detachment from the 
glimpsed events taking place outside the intimacy estabhshed between 
reporter and viewer. Talking to the lens creates the effect of standing 
outside the situation being reported, of taking a detached, objective 
view of the type of extraordinary event that would normally have 
overwhelmed and involved an observer. 

Journalistic values are claimed to be based on the search for objec- 
tivity, of the seeking after fact as opposed to comment or opinion but 
paradoxically, this 'objectivity' is often accompanied by powerful, 
emotional images that are intended to grab and involve the audience's 
attention. The subjective, emotionally involving images of human suf- 
fering or despair are sometimes combined, in an uneasy alUance, with 
a 'factual' piece to camera. 

The most neutral and objective image would appear to be the fash- 
ion for posing the journalist against a sign or logo. Over the shoulder 
of the reporter is seen a notice which may say 'Home Office', 'Scotland 
Yard', 'Treasury', etc. 

This type of shot often fails to work as the background rectangle 
sign fights the foreground reporter as the main subject of interest. 
Divided interest seems to appeal to literal minded journalists accus- 
tomed to working with print. The background sign appeals to them 
because they believe it reinforces the story whereas in fact a divided 
interest image is often a distraction to the viewer. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

The same divided interest is carried over into tiie news bulletin 
where the newsreader is pushed out of the frame by a programme 
logo or generic title. This stale visual arrangement is an awkward 
composition that has achieved acceptabihty by constant repetition 
(see Figure 6.4). 


A recurring news and feature item is the location interior interview. It 
usually requires shots of the interviewee seated in their office or house 
being questioned by a presenter. There are a number of factors in 
deciding camera position and interview position including: 









Figure 15.1 The same size of 
foreground subject achieved with 
a narrow angle lens (a) and a wide 
angle lens (b) 

• Does the interview position allow variation in shot size to sustain a 
long interview if required? 

• Can the participants positional relationship be established? 

• Is the environment around the interviewee important to the inter- 
view? Does the background to the shot give more information? 

• Is there a comfortable distance between participants for them to 
relate to each other? 

• Avoid the bottom frame hne coinciding with someone seated - i.e., 
seat of chair and frame hne correspond so that it looks as if the 
person is sitting on the bottom frame. This also applies to leaning 
on a vertical that coincides with right/left frame edge. 

• Is there sufficient space and how convenient is it to rehght and 
reposition for reverses? Before cross-shooting on a subject ensure 
that all angles have compositional potential. When setting up an 
interview, eyeball the reverses before deciding on the main shot. 

• Do windows need to be in shot? 

• The colour temperature difference and balance between daylight 
entering from windows and the light provided by added lamps. 

If there is complete control over the subject position then look for a 
background that wiU draw attention to the subject, will balance out 
the main subject (e.g., offset framing) and will hint at an explanation 
of the subject either by mood, atmosphere or information. 

Control of background 

A small area of background can be controlled by hghting or by limit- 
ing the depth-of-fleld by an ND (neutral density) ffiter in the camera, 
but the greatest control is by choice of camera position, lens angle, 
camera distance and foreground subject position. Consideration must 
also be given to how the shot will be intercut and often a matching 
background of similar tonal range, colour and contrast has to be 
chosen to avoid a mismatch when intercutting. 

Too large a tonal range between intercut backgrounds will result in 
obtrusive and very visible cuts. Visual continuity of elements such as 
direction of light, similar zones of focus and the continuity of back- 
ground movement (e.g., crowds, traffic, etc.) in intercut shots have also 
to be checked. 

Staging 199 

Figure composition 

Single figure composition 

The single figure occurs constantly in film and television framing. 
There appear to be two aspects that affect its relationship with the 
setting (other elements will be discussed in the appropriate sections). 
With a simple or plain background, the figure should be in contact 
with one or two edges of the frame in order to achieve unity with 
the image. With a shot closer than full figure this is obviously 
inevitable. If the context of the shot allows, a side-lit portraiture 
enables the darker side of the face to set up a relationship with the 
background. Another visual solution is to find a balancing relation- 
ship with background forms or light (using shadow), similar shapes 
or colour. A single figure is often used to show scale in a landscape 
and will be identified by movement even if the figure is dominated 
by the location. 

The most useful staging to integrate offset figures with their back- 
ground is to get the presenter to stand with his or her body turned into 
the frame rather than square-on to camera. If the shoulder fine points 
into the background then there is a natural lead-in that connects back- 
ground to foreground. 

Two figure composition 

Two people in a frame can quickly lead to a 'divided interest' compo- 
sition unless one of them is made more dominant. This can be achieved 
by unequal size or position in frame or simply having one person with 
their back to camera. There are many standard two shot stagings 
ranging from a larger foreground figure contrasted with a smaller 
background figure, over-the-shoulder two shots, three-quarter two 
shot, etc. Other methods of switching attention between two figures 
in the same frame is by dialogue, movement or lighting. 

Multi-figure compositions 

Circles, pyramid and oval groupings are classical solutions to bind- 
ing together three, four or more subjects. Five subjects are often 
easier to combine into a composition than four. Using the outhne 
shapes of heads and arms and legs to guide the eye around the 
simple geometric forms, individuals are merged into a coherent 
composition. It is important to set a focus point (the main subject) 
within the group and then build the most appropriate shape to 
emphasize that point. 

Individuals in the group may be active or passive in their relation- 
ship to the overall composition. Staging people with their backs to 
camera or in three-quarter profile weakens their importance. Placing 
people on the focus of a leading fine formed by the group's outhne 
shape or other strong directional line, will strengthen their importance. 
Balancing two people against one within a pyramid grouping is 
another standard solution to control attention. 

200 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Working at speed 

Because of the wide range of techniques that are employed in film and 
television production it is not possible or desirable to itemize a set of 
compositional do's and don'ts that will cover all situations. Certain 
basic conventions can be identified that are in use across a wide spec- 
trum of camerawork but in general, as with the choice of camera 
equipment, it is 'horses for courses'. One speciahst area of program- 
ming or film making will evolve a certain way of working which suits 
the requirements of that technique. Other types of production would 
find these conventions restricting or superfluous. 

Actuahty programming - working live or recording as live (i.e., no 
retakes) - have one technique in common. Live action demands a 
stream of continuous pictures, which means that each cameraman is 
required to frame up their shots at speed. Occasionally they may have 
time to reposition the camera without haste and to take time out to 
consider the precise framing of a shot. This is a rare and infrequent 
luxury in many types of programming such as sport, music or group 
discussions. Most productions require a continuous variety of shots 
often linked to a specific event. 

The live multi-camera coverage of an orchestral concert, for exam- 
ple, will be camera scripted in sympathy with the piece performed. 
Depending on the nature of the music and the television treatment 
decided by the director, there may be in excess of 200-300 shots shared 
between five or more cameras. 

Each shot has its designated function in the score and must be ready 
and framed at the precise bar that it is required. The speed of the 
camerawork will therefore be synchronized with the music and at 
times this will entail rapid and continuous shot change. The tempo 
of the camerawork varies between extremely quick reactions 'off-shot' 
to find the next instrument, to slow camera movement 'on-shot' that 
reflects the mood of the music. Panning movements have to be syn- 
chronized with the number of bars aUocated to that shot and must 
finish exactly on the instrument or group of instruments agreed 
because possibly, at that point in time, a solo or change of tempo 
may occur. 

This reflex framing by the camera operator with no time to con- 
sciously consider composition, is achieved by relying on habit and the 
developed feeling for a good picture that instantly oversees the eye/ 
hand coordination. If there is no time to consider the image, the only 
thing to do is to rely on experience and training. Live television con- 
tinuously requires quick compositional decisions. 

Camerawork that is carried out in the real time of the event covered 
often allows no time for any thoughtful consideration about the pre- 
cise way of framing. There is no opportunity to re-order the visual 
elements. The most that can be done in the time avaflable is to trim the 
shot by way of the zoom and a shght jiggle of the framing points. 

An example of the instinctive response to movement can be seen in 
slow-motion replays of fast sporting action. In the UK, the square-on 
'slo mo' camera position in cricket coverage is required to follow the 
ball as soon as it leaves the bat. Sometimes even the batsman does not 
know which way the ball went. Continuously during the game, the 
slow-motion replays reveal that the cameraman has instinctively fol- 

Staging 201 

lowed the ball to a fielder who has gathered the ball and aimed it at the 
stumps in one fluid movement. The framing seen in slow motion behes 
the real speed and technique required to follow and keep the baU in the 
frame and the players involved. It has been judged that the speed of 
the action is sometimes too fast for the umpires on the field to assess 
what has happened and they call upon a third umpire in the stadium to 
adjudicate. He is able to do this by relying on the slow-motion replay 
of the debated incident. High technology does not provide this aid - 
simply the fast reflexes of cameramen. 

In unscripted multi-camera working, one eye has to be kept on what 
other cameras are offering (through mixed viewfinder or a monitor) in 
order to provide alternative shots to the shot on transmission. 
Although most television sports coverage has designated roles for 
each camera, there are often accompanying incidents such as presenta- 
tions at the end of the event or 'celebrating' spectator shots that 
require an ad lib coverage. In group discussion programmes, size of 
shot must be matched and alternatives avaflable for cutaways. 


Many film and television images consist of faces or figures in a setting. 
Much of the time, cameramen are involved in finding solutions to the 
visual problem of combining a foreground subject with its back- 

The internal space of the shot is a subtle but important part of the 
look, mood and atmosphere of the shot. When three-dimensional 
objects are converted into a flat two-dimensional image, size relation- 
ships wiU be controlled by camera distance to subject and lens angle. 
The choice of the lens angle is therefore dependent on how the action 
is to be staged and the visual style that is required. 



Camera movement 

When 1 was 12 years old, 1 stood in a film studio at Elstree near 
London watching a camera crane following an actress, Ingrid 
Bergman, walk down a very large curved staircase set in the centre 
of the studio. Apart from a location shot filmed in Acton, London, for 
'Kind Hearts and Coronets' (1949), this was the only film making 1 
had ever seen. I was intrigued by the crane's movement as it floated 
parallel to, and in perfect synchronization with, the actress's move- 
ment, down the stairs and across a hall. Jack Cardiff was the cinema- 
tographer on the film 'Under Capricorn' (1949) and he wrote many 
years later about the problems involved with this production. The 
director, Alfred Hitchcock, was experimenting with the ten-minute 
take, which he had introduced in 'Rope' (1948). The scenery was 
designed to be moved aside to allow the crane to move between 
rooms and up the stairs to the bedroom all in the same continuous 
shot. I was amazed at how many takes it took but only later did 1 
understand why a ten-minute shot requires so much planning and 
choreography between actor and camera. 1 think the crane was a 
Mole Richardson, one of a pair that Hitchcock had imported from 
the USA, although ten years later, when I worked on the same crane at 
the BBC, I noticed that it also had MPRC on the side - Motion 
Picture Research Council, HoUywood. 

The crane movement 1 witnessed that day had all the hallmarks of a 
classic camera movement. It combined the functional purpose of keep- 
ing the main subject in frame in a development shot that took her from 
A to B, with a visual interpretation of the character's grace and style as 
she descended the staircase. The rich visual texture of this movement 
through space did all these things and yet it was probably unnoticed by 
the audience. 

Movement 203 

Invisible movement 

The camerawork technique practised by the professional cameraman - 
such as stop/start camera movement on action; matching camera 
movement to subject movement; pivot points on zooms and tracks; 
matched shots on intercuts - is designed to make 'invisible' the 
mechanics of programme production. The intention is usually to 
emphasize subject - picture content - rather than technique. 

An old cliche of Hollywood is that 'a good cutter cuts his own 
throat'. It refers to the invisible technique (discussed in Chapter 1) 
employed by film editors to stitch together a series of shots so that 
the audience is unaware that any artifice or craft has been employed. 
The transition between images is so natural that the techniques used 
flow past unnoticed. The editor has done such a good job in disguising 
his or her contribution to the film that their expertise is invisible. If the 
viewer is unaware of the camerawork then quite often the cameraman 
has achieved his objective. Like the old Hollywood saying, expert 
camerawork, whether single or multi-camera, renders the cameraman 

The antithesis of this is seen in many home videos where hose-piping 
the camera and unsteady zooming draws attention to the method 
of recording the subject and zaps the viewer into visual stupefaction. 
The drawback of practising an invisible technique is that, to the 
uninitiated, there is no obvious 'craft'. The cameraman is not only 
anonymous, he or she appears to have made little contribution to 
the production. 

Camera movement and invisible teciinique 

There is the paradox of creating camera movement to provide visual 
excitement or visual change whilst attempting to make the movement 
'invisible'. Invisible in the sense that the aim is to avoid the audience's 
attention switching from programme content to the camerawork. As 
we have discussed, intrusive and conspicuous camera movements are 
often used for specific dramatic or styhstic reasons (e.g., music videos), 
but the majority of programme formats work on the premise that the 
methods of programme production should remain hidden or invisible. 

Synchronized movement 

Two basic conventions with camera movement are firstly to match the 
movement to the action so that the camera move is motivated by the 
action and is controlled in speed, timing and degree by the action. 

Secondly, there is a need to maintain good composition throughout 
the move. A camera move is a visual development that provides new 
information or creates atmosphere or mood. If the opening and clos- 
ing frames of a move, such as a zoom in, are the only images that are 
considered important, then it is probably better to use a cut to change 
shot rather than a camera move. A camera move should provide new 
visual interest and there should be no 'dead' area between the first and 
end image. 

204 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

A camera move is usually prompted by one of the following: 

to add visual interest; 

to express excitement, increase tension or curiosity; 

to provide a new main subject of interest; 

to provide a change of viewpoint; 

to interpret an aspect of the narrative; 

to follow the action. 

Movement that is not motivated by action will be obtrusive and 
focus attention on the method of recording the image. It will make 
visible the camera technique employed. It is sometimes the objective of 
obtrusive camera movement to invigorate content that is considered 
stale and lacking interest. If there is a lack of confidence in the content 
of a shot, then possibly it is better to rethink the subject rather than 
attempting to disguise this weakness by moving attention on to the 
camera technique employed. 

Obtrusive camera movement 

Early films were often conceived by the audience as moving photo- 
graphs and dubbed 'the movies'. Movement always captures attention 
and interest and there has been a continuous demand for fast-moving 
productions and fast-moving camerawork accentuating the pace of the 

As we discussed in Chapter 12, in the development of music videos, 
pace became the source of energy that drove the audience's interest 
forward, not the 'what happens next in the story?' technique of classic 
Hollywood narrative style. Music videos are similar to commercials 
with many images combined in a very short time. A characteristic of 
this style is continuous camera movement and very fast cutting - 
almost single frame - to inject pace. 

This is using camera movement in a very different way to the dis- 
guised, unobtrusive changing image of much film and television pro- 
duction. But continuous, obtrusive movement has moved from music 
videos/commercials to much mainstream popular programming. 
There is a modern emphasis on continuous camera movement that 
appears to obey the dictum that it is not visually interesting unless 
the image is on the move. Some suggest that this rapid change of view 
is a product of reduced attention span or, on the other hand, an 
example of greater visual hteracy that allows the audience to under- 
stand visual information in a much shorter time than their parents. 

Single camera and multi-camera movement 

Film is a record of an event edited and assembled after the event 
occurs. Live television is a presentation of an event as it occurs. 
Although camera movement in single and multi-camera shooting 
share many similarities, they are to some extent conditioned by the 
differences imposed by the practice of recording a single shot and the 
practicalities of recording or transmitting a number of shots continu- 

Movement 205 

Live, or recorded as live, multi-camera coverage presents an event in 
real time and requires flexible camera mounts able to provide a variety 
of shots. In the studio, camera movement can be maximized on- or oif- 
shot by tracking over a level floor. Film and single camera coverage 
can break the action into single shots and lay tracks and devise move- 
ment without the need to compromise or be inhibited by other camera 

Staging action for multi-camera continuous coverage requires a 
great deal more visual compromise than action that is conceived for 
a single shot. There are limitations on set design and Hghting for multi- 
camera shooting which are easily overcome or simply not a considera- 
tion in single shot/single camera recording. In general, because of the 
constraints of time/budget, multi-camera operation often requires con- 
stant minor adjustments to the frame in order to accommodate actor 
position or staging that could have been replotted if time/budget (and 
the ever-present need for multi-camera compromise) was available. 

Two types of movement 

Camera movement can be conveniently grouped as functional move- 
ment and interpretive movement. This over-simpUfied division wfll 
often overlap but if functional movement is reframing to accommod- 
ate subject movement, then interpretive movement can be defined as a 
planned, deliberate change of camera position or zoom to provide 
visual variety, narrative emphasis or to reflect mood, atmosphere or 
emotion. Subject movement is often designed to motivate camera 
movement so in practice there is often no simple demarcation. 

Camera movement also includes change of size of shot motivated by 
dialogue or narrative demands. Frequently, the importance or emo- 
tional intensity of a line of dialogue will naturally draw the camera 
closer but the move has to be handled with sensitivity and feehng, and 
timed to exactly match the emotions expressed. Just as camera move- 
ment will be synchronized with the start/stop points of action, move- 
ment motivated by dialogue or emotional expression, will be 
controlled by the timing and nuances of the performance. 

One of the weaknesses of television camerawork is that there is a 
tendency to cover action by small zoom movements or camera move- 
ment. Single-camera film or video usually settle on either staging the 
action so that it can be contained in a static frame or have tracks laid 
down and devise a positive camera movement to contain the action. 
In television productions, continuous small minor adjustments of 
framing detract from content and become an irritant, although with 
unrehearsed action there is no way of avoiding constant frame adjust- 
ment. As subject movement is frequently unplanned, the composition 
of the shot wiU need continuous adjustment. This requires a pan and 
tilt head that can be instantly adjusted in discrete movements. 

Multi-camera coverage requires maximum flexibihty with camera 
movement to foUow often unrehearsed action. A common dilemma 
is when to reframe a subject who is swaying in and out of reasonable 
framing. The shot may become too tight for a subject who needs to 
emphasize every point with hand gestures. It is seldom possible to 
constantly pan to keep someone who is swaying in frame as, inevita- 
bly, an anticipated movement does not happen and the composition 
becomes unbalanced. If the shot cannot be contained without contin- 

206 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

uous refraining then the incessant moving background wiU eventually 
become a distraction from the main subject of the shot. The only 
solution is to widen the shot. If the viewer is unaware of the camera- 
work then quite often the cameraman has achieved his objective. 
Expert camerawork, whether single or multi-camera, provides invisible 
camera movement by matching movement to action. 

The pan 

The simplest camera movement on a static subject is the pan. It is 
often used in the mistaken idea that it gives visual variety among a 
number of static shots. Usually, the main use of a pan, apart from 
keeping a moving subject in frame, is to show relationships. 

There is obviously the need to begin a pan with a weU-balanced shot 
that has intrinsic interest in its own right. The second requirement is to 
find visual elements that allow the pan to flow smoothly and inevitably 
to the end framing. The end frame must be well balanced and again of 
intrinsic interest. The pan alerts the viewer that the camera is moving 
to reveal some image of importance or interest. If this anticipation 
is denied and the end framing is quickly cut away from because it 
contains no visual interest, then the movement is an anti-climax. 

Using dominant lines and movement 

The speed of a panning shot must be matched to content. Panning fast 
over complex detail produces irritation - it is impossible to take in the 
information. Panning slowly over large, unbroken, plain areas may 
provoke boredom. It is almost always necessary to help with the visual 
change by finding some visual connection between first and last com- 
position. Panning with movement, along lines, edges or any horizontal 
or vertical visual link usually disguises the transition and leads the eye 
naturally to the next point of interest. Use dominant horizontal, ver- 
tical or angled hnes to pan along in order to move to a new viewpoint. 
Panning on hnes in the frame aUows visual continuity between two 
images and appears to provide a satisfactory visual link. The same 
visual link can be achieved by using movement within the frame to 
allow a pan or a camera movement from one composition to another. 
A common convention in an establishing shot is to follow a person 
across the set or location, to aUow new information about the geogra- 
phy of the setting as the shot develops. The person the camera follows 
may be unimportant but is used to visually take the camera from a 
starting composition to possibly the main subject. 

The reverse of unobtrusive technique is frequently seen in the 'pan 
and scan' conversion of widescreen films to 4:3 television screens. The 
4:3 framing oscillates from one side of the original widescreen to 
the other with no visual motivation other than change of dialogue 
location. This ersatz 'panning' is intrusive and clumsy. 

The speed of a pan across a symphony orchestra playing a slow 
majestic piece will be at a different speed to a pan across the orchestra 
when it is playing at full gaUop. Speed of movement must match mood 
and content. If it is required to be discrete and invisible then move- 
ment must begin when the action begins and end when the action ends. 
A crane or tilt up with a person rising must not anticipate the move 
neither must it be late in catching up with the move. Any movement 



Figure 16.1 Preselect one or two 
adjacent sides of the frame to the 
main subject of the zoom and, 
whilst maintaining their position at 
a set distance from the main 
subject of the zoom, allow the 
other two sides of the frame to 
change their relative position to 
the subject. Keep the same 
relationship of the adjacent frame 
edge to the selected subject 
during the whole of the zoom 

Static edge of frame 

Pivot point 

• Moving edge of frame 

+ Direction of zoom 

Moving edge of frame 

that is bursting to get out of the frame must either be allowed camera 
movement to accommodate it or there is a need for a cut to a wider 

It is an old truism that still photography deals with space relation- 
ships whilst film and television camerawork deal with space, time and 
movement to accommodate a constantly changing visual pattern. 
Composition is not just the shape of subjects but also the shape of 
motion. As well as camera movement, there is also movement within 
the frame when either dialogue or action switches the audiences atten- 
tion between the main subjects. 

Pivot points 

A common mistake with users of domestic camcorders is to centre the 
subject of interest in the frame and then to zoom towards them keep- 
ing the subject the same distance from all four sides of the frame. The 
visual effect is as if the frame implodes in on them from all sides. 

A more pleasing visual movement is to keep two sides of the frame 
at the same distance from the subject for the whole of the movement. 
This is achieved in a track or a zoom by preselecting a pivot point in 
the composition which is usually the main subject of interest and, 
whilst maintaining their position at a set distance from two adjacent 
sides of the frame, allow the other two sides of the frame to change 
their relative position to the subject. This allows the subject image to 
grow progressively larger (or smaller) within the frame whilst avoiding 
the impression of the frame contracting in towards them (Figure 16.1). 

The point that is chosen to be held stationary in the frame is called 
the pivot point. Using a pivot point allows the subject image to grow 
progressively larger (or smaller) within the frame whilst avoiding the 
impression of the frame contracting in towards them. 

208 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

It may be necessary on a combined track and crabbing movement to 
change this pivot point during the move but again, as in all camera 
techniques, the changeover to a different pivot point must be subtle, 
unobtrusive and controlled by the main subject of interest. The move- 
ment must be choreographed so that there are no violent swings on 
pivot points from left to right of frame. 

Finding tfie right tracking line 

We saw in the description of zooming that keeping two sides or even 
one side of the frame at a constant distance from the principle subject 
throughout a zoom or track creates a more pleasing visual result than 
simply aUowing all four sides to implode in on the subject. 

In zooming, the control of the pivot point is achieved by panning 
and/or tilting to adjust the frame during the zoom. Control of the 
framing during tracking (to keep a constant distance between one 
side of the frame and the subject) can also be achieved by panning/ 
tilting but it is more effective if it can be controlled by the hne of the 
track (see Figure 16.2). 

Finding tiie right camera height when tracking 

The same technique can be used to maintain a pivot point at the top of 
the frame when tracking in or out, for example, on a singer. When 
tracking-in, the camera is craned up at a rate that holds the pivot point 
at the top of the frame without the need to reframe the camera. The 
lens height automatically arrives at the more flattering position, 
slightly above eye height, for the closer shot whilst avoiding crossing 
the key Hght and shadowing the artiste! Tracking-out, the camera is 
craned down at a rate that maintains the top-of-the-frame pivot point 
arriving at a lower angle wide-shot that compresses the amount of 
floor area in shot. 

The development shot 

Tracking or crabbing the camera to emphasize another visual element 
in the frame is a standard convention that has been used for many 
years. A development shot, as the name implies, is a shot that 
smoothly and unobtrusively moves towards a new viewpoint. It can 
start with a composition that emphasizes one set of visual elements 
and then moves, motivated by action or driven by the audience's 
curiosity, to an image that emphasizes another set of visual elements. 
In dramatic terms, it has no real equivalent in theatre or hterature and 
when staging, pace and execution are fuUy integrated it can provide 
the most visually exciting images. 

To achieve its greatest impact, a development often requires fore- 
ground elements to wipe across frame to emphasize movement; it 
requires a progressive change of viewpoint from its starting position; 
and it needs a main subject of interest that can be followed through 
various dynamic compositions. Although the movement must be fluid 
and changing, it requires a continuing revelation of dynamic images. 

Many development shots require either a wide opening to the move 
or they end wide. As we have discussed, camera movement is accen- 



Figure 16.2 A tracking line to 
produce an end frame of 
presenter plus scoreboard. The 
tracking line chosen requires no 
constant reframing during the 
move and no change in the 
direction of the pedestal wheels to 
maintain the preselected pivot 
point. It is the tracking line angle 
that maintains the pivot point. 
Operationally it is simpler and 
smoother and visually unobtrusive 
- the motivation for selecting a 
pivot point 

tuated when using the wide-angle end of the zoom (plus appropriate 
set design) but if part of the development involves a medium close-up 
or close-up of a face, then at some stage, on a wide angle ( < 40°) there 
will be unacceptable distortion and probably camera shadow. 

This can be avoided by starting the move on the wide angle and 
then, at some point in the development, continue the move on the 
zoom. The transition between track and zoom needs careful selection 
but usually the movement can be carried over by continuing with a 
slight crab whilst ending in a tight shot on the zoom. This obviously 
involves 'bhnd zooming' with no opportunity to pre-check focus. 
Critical focus will occur in close-up just at the point when subtle 
control of framing is required. On a crane or a dolly, the camera 
lens can be tracked to a predetermined position whilst the cameraman 
controls framing, pivot and focus. The same type of development shot 
on a pedestal may require the assistance of a tracker to 'sweeten' the 
move. The reverse development shot of zoom first-track later requires 
even more precise focus and attentive camera control. 

A development shot moves from one set of visual elements on to 
another viewpoint. This visual transition requires reframing, using 
pivot points, tracking, crabbing and zooming and therefore it is essen- 
tial that the cameraman anticipates what the final frame will be in 
order to smoothly progress the move to achieve that objective. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 



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KA ^ 

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Figure 16.3 An extended 
development shot in the opening 
sequence of Touch of Evil' (1958). 
(a) Close-up of timer of bomb 
being set in someone's hands; (b) 
bomb being placed in boot of car; 
(c) camera cranes up to see 
couple walk to the car; (d) the car 
passes the principal characters 
and the camera follows them; (e) 
to the frontier post where the car 
with the bomb draws alongside 

Visual anticipation is organizing all the necessary adjustments before 
the end frame is reached. Tidying up' the composition cannot be left 
until the move has ended. 

The opening shot of 'Touch of Evil' (1958) directed by Orson WeUes 
shows a package being placed in the boot of a parked car (Figure 16.3). 
People enter the car and the camera cranes up and away over the roof 
of a house as the car pulls away. Tracking across a street the camera 
finds another couple walking and then follows the car and the couple as 
they walk though a Mexican frontier town. The car and the walking 
couple constantly switch positions as the main subject of interest before 
the car reaches the frontier customs post and explodes. This continuous 
development lasting a minute of screen time allows the plot to be 
established whilst creating atmosphere and excitement all contained 
in one fluid exciting development. Actor movement and camera move- 
ment need to be perfectly choreographed by the director to achieve 
such visual cohesion (Figure 16.3(a)-(e)). 

Compositional impact can also be achieved by combining unex- 
pected perspective characteristics. In Stephen Spielberg's 'Jaws' 
(1975), the sheriff of a seaside town has been anticipating the return 
of the man-eating shark and suddenly hears screams from the beach. 
Keeping him in mid-shot, the camera tracks and zooms, which keeps 
his image the same size but, because of the changing camera distance, 
progressively shows a background to foreground size ratio change. 
The visual effect is to freeze him in space while the background is 
apparently in flux. The same double movement of camera and zoom 
was used by Alfred Hitchcock in 'Vertigo' (see Figure 16.5). 

Static camera - moving subject 

Lens angle, camera distance and camera height will dictate the char- 
acteristics of a moving subject composition. On a long focal length lens 
with the subject at a distance from the camera, space wiU be com- 
pressed and movement will appear disproportionately small compared 
with image size. For example, a subject can walk ten paces on a long 
focal length lens in mid-shot and hardly register a change in size. This 
contradicts our normal perception of perspective change and sets up a 
surreal 'running on the spot' feel to the image. 

A close position with a wide-angle lens wfll accentuate movement, 
and any movement towards the camera will make the subject change 
size disproportionately to the actual movement taken. Action that 
is corner to corner will be more dynamic than action that sweeps 
horizontally across the frame. 

IVIoving camera/moving subject 

One of the most common forms of moving camera/moving subject 
shot is to follow, in the same size shot, a subject walking or driving. 
A popular convention is the parallel tracking shot where two people in 
conversation walk with the camera crabbing with them often slightly 
ahead so that both faces are seen. For this technique to be 'invisible' 
the frame must be steady, horizontally level and the same size shot 
maintained over most of the move. The effect is as if the audience was a 
third person walking with them and listening in to their conversation. 



A number of visual variations are to be found, wliicli rely on what is 
a static foreground of main subject whilst the background moves. 
People in cars, trains even glass hfts can be held framed in static 
shot while the background moves behind them. 

Moving the camera whilst the subject size alters can be more difficult 
to handle. Unless there are other visual elements moving in and out of 
the frame, the change in size of the subject can appear as if the camera 
is unable to keep up or is gaining on the subject. When the movement 
is across the frame as in a crabbing shot then change of size may not be 
so apparent and is visually acceptable. 

static frame 







Accelerate the pan as the 

subject moves to provide space 

in the frame to walk into' and 

begin to zoom out to anticipate 

the final frame 

Pace the zoom out to match walk 

and hold the pan when the end frame is 

reached and allow subject to move into 

final position 

Correct final framing anticipated and 
made invisible by the walk 

Figure 16.4 

Frame adjustment whilst tracking 

One of the compositional conventions of camerawork with profile 
shots, where people are looking out of frame, is to give additional 
space in the direction of their gaze for 'looking room'. Similarly, 
when someone is walking across frame, to give more space in front 
of them than behind. 

This space in the frame to 'walk into' needs to be maintained 
throughout a development. This can be difficult if the subject, for 
example, is standing to the left of frame and moves to camera left 
(i.e., towards the left-hand side of the frame; see Figure 16.4). This 
requires an accelerated rapid pan left in order to provide space on the 
left (the direction of movement) before setthng down to match the 
speed of the pan with the walk. The appropriate framing for the end 
composition must be achieved before the subject stops to avoid the 
camera reframing after the action has ended. If the subject is walking 
to take up a similar left of frame position with another 'results board', 
then the camera must stop the pan when the board is correctly framed 
making certain there is sufficient space on left of frame for the subject 
to walk into. In general, anticipate any change in frame size whilst on 
the move and do not leave the reframing until the subject has settled. 
Come to rest with the subject. 

As we have seen in the section on perspective, moving the camera 
towards or away from the subject alters the size relationships between 
foreground and background objects. The perspective of mass changes 
in a similar way to our own perceptual experience when we move 
towards or away from an object. Tracking the camera therefore not 
only conforms to our normal visual expectations but sets up interest- 
ing re-arrangements of all the visual elements in the camera's field of 
view. Changing the camera distance alters all the image size relation- 
ships apart from very distant objects near or on the horizon. The size 
of a range of hills remains unaffected no matter how far we travel 
towards them until we reach a critical distance where we have a part 
of the hills as foreground with which to compare a background. 

Movement within the shot and lens angle 

A two-dimensional film or television image of three-dimensional space 
can involve compromise between action and the requirements of the 
camera. A common adjustment is the speed of the actor movement to 
the size of the shot or the lens angle in use. 

A small movement in a close-up can be the equivalent of a big 
movement in long shot. A fuU figure, three-pace walk towards a 

212 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

wide-angle lens will create a much bigger change in size than the 
equivalent full figure walk towards a 25° lens. The 'internal space' of 
the lens in use becomes a critical consideration when staging action for 
the camera (see Figure 15.1). 

Actor movement that is motivated by the story line is often required 
to be modified by the demands of the specific lens in use. One of the 
most common adjustments is the speed of a rise from a chair, which 
may need to be covered in close-up. A normal rise will often appear 
frantic contained in a tight shot and is frequently slowed down. This 
also helps with the problem of achieving good framing when covering 
a fast-moving subject on a tight lens. 

Another common development shot is keeping a foreground artiste 
or object in shot while crabbing to follow the background movement 
of another actor. This is fairly straightforward using a wide-angle lens 
if the camera position is tight to the foreground subject, as this allows 
the arc of the crab to be relatively short. A few feet of camera move- 
ment will accommodate a 10-ft change of position of a background 
artiste. If a longer focal length lens is used, for the same size fore- 
ground image, the camera is much further back and the arc of the 
crabbing line now becomes considerably extended in order to keep the 
same background actor movement in shot (Figure 16.5(a) and (b)). 
Using a narrower angle lens also alters the apparent movement of the 
camera as less background scenery is covered by the sweep of the lens. 

Camera movement must have visual elements that change their 
relationship depending on camera position. A crab around a subject 
set against a featureless background will provide shght indication of 
change of viewpoint. The same movement with the subject set against 
a varied and broken background now has markers to indicate the 
change of viewpoint. If foreground features sweep across the frame 
there are even more indicators that the viewpoint is changing and the 
movement (if that is what is required) becomes more dominant and 

Camera movement using a narrow-angle lens has a distinct visual 
quahty but requires greater operational precision than wide-angle lens 
movement. Moving the camera using a wide-angle lens is smoother 
and provides a great deal more movement in the frame for the distance 
covered compared with using a narrow-angle lens. 

The internal space of a shot often underhnes the emotional quality 
of the scene. 'Normal' perspective (see Chapter 4) for establishing 
shots is often used where the intention is to plainly and straightfor- 
wardly describe the locale. A condensed or an expanded space, on the 
other hand, may help to suggest the mood or atmosphere of the action. 

The choice of lens angle and resulting composition should not be 
accidental unless, as is frequently the case, camera position and angle 
are fait accompli created by a multi-camera compromise. 

Accentuating the effect of camera movement 

The greatest impression of movement can be observed by using a 
wide-angle lens and tracking between similar size objects such as a 
row of trees on each side of a road. The apparent size of each tree to 
its neighbour changes dramatically as it approaches the lens. There is 



Figure 16.5 (a) A 


development shot 
is to hold a two 
shot of foreground 
actor (C) while 
actor A walks to B. 
If the camera 
position is tight to 
the foreground 
subject (C) the arc 
of the crab is 
relatively short, (b) 
If a longer lens is 
used, for the same 
size foreground 
image, the camera 
is much further 
back and the arc 
of the crabbing 
line now becomes 
extended in order 
to keep the same 
background actor 
movement in shot 






Picture Composition for Film and Television 





Zooming in 

Tracking in 

Figure 16.6 From a wide shot (a) 
there are two methods of 
achieving a medium shot of the 
presenter standing on the left of 
frame. If the camera (without 
moving) zooms into a medium 
shot (b) it is equivalent to 
enlarging the portion of the wide 
shot outlined. There is no change 
in perspective and the background 
seated man is in the same size 
relationship to the presenter in the 
wide shot as in the final zoom 
position. If the camera tracks in to 
arrive at a medium shot (c) the 
size relationship changes and also 
more of the background is in the 
medium shot than in the same 
size shot achieved by zooming in 

a constant visual flow of size ratio expansion as we track down the 

Zooming along the road between rows of trees does not have any- 
thing hke the same visual dynamics. The camera does not move and 
therefore there is no change in size relationships. The zoom simply 
magnifies the central portion of the field of view preserving the existing 
size relationships. They remain unaltered as in a still photograph when 
a portion of it is enlarged. The perspective of mass is decided by the 
camera distance and zooming simply expands or contracts a portion of 
the field of view. 

The feeling of flatness or deadness of a zoom is because there is no 
anticipated change to the perspective of mass that in normal percep- 
tion accompanies changes in magnification or diminution of subject. 
This compositional inertia can be disguised by building in a camera 
move such as a pan with action or even a crabbing movement to 
accompany a zoom. The camera movement provides some relational 
changes to the visual elements that the zoom is magnifying. 

The compositional distinction between zoom and track 

Tracking into a scene extends the involvement of the viewer in that 
they are being aUowed visually to move into the two-dimensional 
screen space. In normal perception, depth indicators can be appraised 
or checked by moving the head or the body to seek a new viewpoint of 
the field of view. Viewing a series of static images on a two-dimen- 
sional screen does not allow this visual 'interrogation'. If depth is to be 
indicated it must be self-evident and contained in the composition of 
the image. A tracking shot provides a change in viewpoint and allows 
the viewer greater opportunity to experience the depth of the space 
pictured compared with either a zoom or a static shot. 

A zoom in or out contains no change in size relationships, it simply 
allows either a greater magnification of a portion of the shot or wider 
view of the same size relationships. The argument for zooming (apart 
from convenience and budget) is that, as a television production is a 
highly artificial process, the viewer is already experiencing a radically 
different visual sensation watching a two-dimensional image of an 
object (which is either magnified or extremely diminished) compared 
with their visual experience when observing the actual event. If so 
much is changed in the translation by the film and television medium 
using techniques of shot size, perspective, two dimensions, small 
image, etc., why quibble about zooming that fails to reproduce some 
small physical aspect of human perception? A television production is 
an approximation of an event that often includes attempts to induce 
an experience of the event in the viewer. Zooming creates a visual 
experience and therefore, it is argued, is as valid a technique as any 
other artifice employed. 

IVIaintaining good composition wtien moving 

When tracking, it is often necessary to adjust the height of the camera, 
particularly when moving into the human figure. In shots closer than 
full figure, lens height is often eye-height, but when the camera is 
further away, depending on the shot, the lens height is usually lower 
to reduce the amount of floor/ground in shot. A low lens height places 

Movement 215 

emphasis on the subject by avoiding distracting foreground level sur- 
faces such as roads, grass or floor. Like aU 'rules of thumb', this 
convention is probably ignored more than it is employed but changes 
in lens height often accompany tracking movements in order to bring 
emphasis on to the main subject. 

Another reason for altering the lens height when tracking into the 
subject is to enhance the appearance of artistes by shooting slightly 
down on faces, rather than shooting up and emphasizing jaw lines and 
double chins, etc. 

Hot heads and remotely controlled cameras 

One of the limitations of development shots that attempted to cover a 
wide range of movement in space was the need for the camera to be 
manned. This required the crane to carry the weight of the cameraman 
and camera on a boom arm that was counterbalanced and positioned 
in space by a tracker. The whole of this weight was mounted on a 
moving platform often driven by a motor. This type of crane was a 
large and sometimes limited device to produce camera movement. 

The development of the remotely controlled hghtweight camera 
mounted on a much hghter dolly using a remote controlled 'hot 
head' (a generic title for a remotely controlled pan/tilt head) allowed 
camera developments that were not possible with the traditional crane 
design. The range of the lightweight boom arms were much greater 
and could be swung into formerly inaccessible positions such as over 
the top of audiences or in high angle positions within a set. A greater 
speed of movement in shot development became possible and a whole 
new range of fluid compositions became commonplace. 

Lightweight video cameras have also aUowed the widespread use of 
Steadicam. This torso harness camera mount separates body move- 
ment from the camera and has revolutionized 'hand-held' operation. 
Steadicam has enabled a whole new range of visual development shots 
over any surface without the need to lay tracks. Movement of 360° 
around the subject, foflowing action up/down stairs, through door- 
ways, into transport, and foflowing sports events by running the 
touch line are just some of the camera movements that are possible. 
In the hands of a skflful operator, the camera can be smoothly moved 
to any point in the space accessible to a person. 

Remotely controlled cameras and pedestals were introduced into 
news studios and aflowed one individual to control a number of cam- 
eras from a control room position. Robotic cameras could be pre- 
programmed to provide a range of shots at the touch of a button 
and to reposition in the studio. A timed preset zoom movement 
could be created that reframed the shot utilizing pivot points. The 
'remoteness' of this type of camera operation precludes some types 
of production contribution provided by a manned camera. 


Camerawork technique - such as stop/start camera movement on 
action; matching camera movement to subject movement; pivot points 
on zooms and tracks; matched shots on intercuts - is designed to make 
'invisible' the mechanics of programme production. The objective 

216 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

is usually to emphasize the subject - picture content - rather than 
camera technique. 

Two basic conventions with camera movement are firstly to match 
the movement to the action so that the camera move is motivated by 
the action and is controlled in speed, timing and degree by action. 
Secondly, there is a need to maintain good composition throughout 
the move. A camera move should provide new visual interest and there 
should be no 'dead' area between the first and end image of the move- 

Functional movement is reframing to accommodate subject move- 
ment. Interpretive movement can be defined as a planned, dehberate 
change of camera position or zoom to provide visual variety, narrative 
emphasis or new information. Just as camera movement will be syn- 
chronized with the start/stop points of action, movement motivated by 
dialogue or emotional expression will be controlled by the timing and 
nuances of the performance. 


Shooting for editing 

Invisible stitching 

The nineteenth-century painter Whistler suggested that a work of art 
can be said to be finished when all traces of its construction are elim- 
inated. Film and television productions are often much more of a craft 
than an art but editing is one skill where this observation seems most 

The skiUs and craft employed by the film/video editor to stitch 
together a sequence of separate shots persuades the audience that 
they are watching a continuous event. They are unaware of the hun- 
dreds of subtle decisions that have been made during the course of the 
production. The action flows from shot to shot and appears natural 
and obvious. The editing skills and techniques that have achieved this 
are rendered invisible to the audience, and therefore the unenHghtened 
may ask, 'but what has the editor done? What is the editor's contribu- 
tion to the production?'. 

This invisible visual manipulation can only be achieved by the direc- 
tor/cameraman providing the appropriate shots for the production. 
An essential requirement for the editing process is a supply of appro- 
priate visual and audio material. The cameraman, director or journal- 
ist need to shoot with editing in mind. Unless the necessary shots are 
available for an item, an editor cannot cut a cohesive and structured 
story. A random collection of shots is not a story, and although an 
editor may be able to salvage a usable item from a series of 'snap- 
shots', essentially editing is exactly like the well known computer 
equation which states that 'garbage in equals garbage out'. 

It is part of broadcasting folklore that the best place to start to learn 
about camerawork is in the edit booth. Here, the shots that have been 
provided by the cameraman have to be previewed, selected and then 
knitted together by the editor into a coherent structure to explain the 
story and fit the designated running time of the item in the pro- 
gramme. Clear storytelling, running time and structure are the key 
points of editing and a cameraman who simply provides an endless 

218 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

number of unrelated shots will pose problems for the editor. A cam- 
eraman returning from a difficult news/magazine shoot may have a 
different version of the edit process. A vital shot may be missing, but 
then the editor was not there to see the difficulties encountered by the 
news cameraman. And how about all the wonderful material that was 
at the end of the second cassette that was never used? With one hour to 
transmission there was no time to view or to cut it, claims the editor. 
In some areas of news and magazine coverage this perennial 
exchange is being eliminated by the gradual introduction of portable 
field editing. It is no longer a case of handing over material for some- 
one else 'to sort out'. Now the cameraman is the editor or the editor is 
the cameraman. This focuses under 'one hat' the priorities of camera- 
work and the priorities of editing. The cameraman can keep his 
favourite shot if he can convince himself, as the editor, that the shot 
is pertinent and works in the final cut. 

Selection and structure 

Editing is selecting and coordinating one shot with the next to con- 
struct a sequence of shots that form a coherent and logical narrative. 
There are a number of standard editing conventions and techniques 
that can be employed to achieve a flow of images that guide the viewer 
through a visual journey. A programme's aim may be to provide a set 
of factual arguments that allows the viewer to decide on the competing 
points of view; it may be dramatic entertainment utilizing editing 
technique to prompt the viewer to experience a series of highs and 
lows on the journey from conflict to resolution; or a news item's 
intention may be to accurately report an event for the audience's 
information or curiosity. 

A crucial aspect of the composition of a shot is to consider how it 
will relate to the preceding and succeeding shots. If a production 
allows pre-planning, a camera script or storyboard wifl have been 
blocked out and the structure of each sequence and how shots are 
to be cut together will be roughly known or even precisely planned. 
Additional cover shots wfll be composed and devised with the original 
scripted shots in mind. 

In factual programming, however, the order of a particular sequence 
of shots may be unknown at the time of recording. The editor requires 
from the cameraman maximum flexibility with material supplied and 
the nucleus of a structure. A 'ground plan' of a potential sequence of 
shots is often mentally sketched out in order to assist in the edit. Edit- 
point requirements, such as change in angle and shot size, subject 
movement, camera movement and continuity, have to be considered 
and provided for to enable the footage to be assembled in a coherent 
stream of images. Shooting with editing in mind is therefore essential. 

Basic editing conventions 

A cameraman or director, when setting up a shot, should consider the 
basic editing conventions to be satisfied if the viewer is to remain 
unaware of shot transition. It would be visually distracting if the 

Shooting for editing 


Figure 17.1 

Exit left 

Cut to.. 

Enter riglit 


f A 

Rise from chair: hold static frame Cut to.. 

The rise is repeated in static 
frame wide shot 

Medium shot holding object Cut to.. 

Close-up of object must be held 

in the same way as position of 

hand in medium shot 

audience's attention was continually interrupted by every change of 

Moving images in film or television are created by the repetition of 
individual static frames. It is human perception that combines the 
separate images into a simulation of movement. One reason this suc- 
ceeds is that the adjacent images in a shot are very similar. If the shot is 
changed and new information appears within the frame (e.g., what was 
an image of a face is now an aeroplane), the eye/brain takes a httle 
time to understand the new image. The greater the visual discrepancy 
between the two shots the more hkely it is that the viewer will con- 
sciously notice the change of shot. 

A basic editing technique is to find ways of reducing the visual 
mismatch between two adjacent images. In general, a change of shot 
will be unobtrusive if 

the individual shots (when intercutting between people) are 
matched in size, have the same amount of headroom, have the 
same amount of looking space if in semi-profile, if the lens angle 
is similar (i.e., internal perspective is similar) and if the lens height 
is the same: 

220 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

• the intercut pictures are colour matched (e.g., skin tones, back- 
ground brightness, etc.) and if in succeeding shots the same subject 
has a consistent colour (e.g., grass in a stadium); 

• there is continuity in action (e.g., body posture, attitude) and the 
flow of movement in the frame is carried over into the succeeding 

• there is a significant change in shot size or camera angle when 
intercutting on the same subject or if there is a significant change 
in content; 

• there is continuity in fighting, in sound, props and setting, and 
continuity in performance or presentation. 

The basis of all invisible technique employed in programme produc- 
tion and specifically in continuity editing is to ensure that: 

• shots are structured to allow the audience to understand the space, 
time and logic of the action so each shot foUows the line of action 
to maintain consistent screen direction to make the geography of 
the action completely intelhgible; 

• unobtrusive camera movement and shot change directs the audi- 
ence to the content of the production rather than the mechanics of 

• continuity editing creates the ifiusion that distinct, separate shots 
(possibly recorded out of sequence and at different times), form 
part of a continuous event being witnessed by the audience. 

Summary of perennial technique 

These editing techniques form the basics of an invisible craft that has 
been developed over nearly 100 years of film and video productions. 
There is innovation and variation on these basic tenets, but the major- 
ity of television programme productions use these standard editing 
conventions to keep the viewer's attention on the content of the pro- 
gramme rather than its method of production. These standard con- 
ventions are a response to the need to provide a variety of ways of 
presenting visual information coupled with the need for them to be 
unobtrusive in their transition from shot to shot. Expertly used, they 
are invisible and yet provide the narrative with pace, excitement, and 

An alternative editing technique, such as, for example, used in music 
videos, uses hundreds of cuts, disrupted continuity, ambiguous im- 
agery, etc., to defiberately visually tease the audience and to avoid 
clear visual communication. The aim is often to recreate the 'rave' 
experience of a club or concert. The production intention is to be 
interpretative rather than informative. 

Selection and editing 

The primary aim of editing is to provide the right structure and selec- 
tion of shots to communicate to the audience the programme maker's 
motives for making the programme and, secondly, to hold their atten- 
tion so that they hsten and remain watching. 

Shooting for editing 221 

Editing, in a literal sense, is the activity of selecting from all the 
available material and choosing what is relevant. Film and video edit- 
ing require the additional consideration that selected shots spliced 
together must meet the requirements of the standard conventions of 
continuity editing. 

A clear idea of the aims of the piece that is being cut must be 
understood by the director or cameraman. Choosing what is relevant 
is the first set of decisions to be faced. Sometimes this is completely 
controlled by what it is possible to shoot. This is why a clear under- 
standing of the function of a shot in a sequence must be understood 
and the appropriate composition supplied at the moment of recording. 

In the golden age of the Hollywood studio production system, most 
studios did not allow their directors to supervise the editing. It is said 
that John Ford circumvented this restriction by simply making one 
take of each shot whenever possible, and making certain that there was 
very Httle overlap of action from shot to shot. This virtually forced the 
editor to cut the film as planned by the director. Alfred Hitchcock 
storyboarded each shot and rarely looked through the camera view- 
finder. The film was already 'cut' in his head before the shooting 

Providing the editor with only the bare essential footage may work 
with film craftsmen of the quality of Ford and Hitchcock, but in the 
everyday activity of news and magazine items it is simply not possible. 
News, by definition, is often an unplanned, impromptu shoot with a 
series of information shots that can only be structured and pulled 
together in the edit suite. Selecting what is relevant is therefore one 
of the first priorities when recording/filming. 

Good editing technique structures the material and identifies the 
main 'teaching' points the audience should understand. A crucial 
role of the editor is to be audience 'number one'. The editor will 
start fresh to the material and he/she must understand the story in 
order for the audience to understand the story. The editor needs to be 
objective and bring a dispassionate eye to the material. The director/ 
cameraman/reporter may have been very close to the story for hours/ 
days/weeks - the audience comes to it new and may not pick up the 
relevance of the setting or set-up if this is spelt out rapidly in the first 
opening sentence. It is surprising how often, with professional com- 
municators, that what is obvious to them about the background detail 
of a story is unknown or its importance unappreciated by their poten- 
tial audience. Beware of the '1 think that is so obvious we needn't 
shoot it' statement. 

The edited package needs to hold the audience's attention by its 
method of presentation (e.g., method of storytelhng - what happens 
next, camera technique, editing technique, etc.). Pace and brevity (e.g., 
no redundant footage) are often the key factors in raising the viewer's 
involvement in the item. Be aware that visuals can fight voice-over 
narration. Arresting images capture the attention first. The viewer 
would probably prefer to 'see it' rather than 'hear it'. A successful 
visual demonstration is always more convincing than a verbal argu- 
ment - as every successful salesman knows. 

The strongest way of engaging the audience's attention is to tell 
them a story. In fact, because film and television images are displayed 
in a hnear way, shot follows shot, it is almost impossible for the 
audience not to construct connections between succeeding images 

222 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

whatever the real or perceived relationships between them. Image 
follows image in an endless flow over time and inevitably the viewer 
will construct a story out of each succeeding piece of information. 

Telling a story - fact and fiction 

The editing techniques used for cutting fiction and factual material are 
almost the same. When switching on a television programme mid-way, 
it is sometimes impossible to assess from the editing alone if the pro- 
gramme is fact or fiction. Documentary makers use storytelhng tech- 
niques learned by audiences from a hfetime of watching drama. 
Usually, the indicator of what genre the production falls into is gained 
from the participants. Even the most reahstic acting appears stilted or 
stylized when placed alongside people talking in their own environ- 
ment. Another visual convention is to allow 'factual' presenters to 
address the lens and the viewer directly, whereas actors and the 
'public' are usually instructed not to look at camera. 

The task of the director, journahst, cameraman and editor is to 
determine what the audience needs to know, and at what point in 
the 'story' they are told. This is the structure of the item or feature 
and usually takes the form of question and answer or cause and eifect. 
Seeking answers to questions posed, for example, 'what are the au- 
thorities going to do about traffic jams?' or 'what causes traffic jams?', 
involves the viewer and draws them into the 'story' that is unfolding. 
Many items can still be cut following the classical structure of exposi- 
tion, tension, climax and release. 

The storytelhng of factual items is probably better served by the 
presentation of detail rather than broad generalizations. Which details 
are chosen to explain a topic is crucial both in explanation and engage- 
ment. Many issues dealt with by factual programmes are often of an 
abstract nature, which at first thought have httle or no obvious visual 
representation. Images to illustrate topics such as inflation can be 
difficult to find when searching for precise representations of the 
diminishing value of money. Newsreels of the 1920s showing 
Berliners going shopping pushing prams filled with bank notes, gra- 
phically demonstrated inflation, but this was a rare and extreme visual 
example. The camera must provide an image of something, and what- 
ever it may be, that something wiU be invested by the viewer with 
significance. That significance may not match the main thrust of the 
item and may lead the viewer away from the topic. Significant detail 
requires careful observation at location and a clear idea of the shape of 
the item when it is being shot. The editor then has to find ways of 
cutting together a series of shots so the transitions are seamless and the 
images logically advance the story. Remember that the viewer will not 
necessarily have the same impression or meaning from an image that 
you have invested in it. 

Because the story is told over time, there is a need for a central motif 
or thread that is easily foUowed and guides the viewer through the 
item. A report, for example, on traffic congestion may have a car 
driver on a journey through rush-hour traffic. Each point about the 
causes of traffic congestion can be illustrated and picked up as they 
occur such as out-of-town shoppers, the school run, commuters, traffic 

Shooting for editing 223 

black spots, road layout, etc. The frustrations of the journey through- 
out the topic will naturally link the 'teaching' points, and the viewer 
can easily identify and speculate about the story's outcome. 


With the above example, as the story progresses over time, the attitude 
of the driver wiU probably change. He/she may display bad-temper, 
irritation with other road users, etc. There will be a difference over 
time and without time there is no story. Finding ways of registering 
change over time is one of the key activities of director, cameraman or 
editor. Shots that register the temperament of the driver by using small 
observational details reveal the story to the viewer. The main topic of 
the item is traffic congestion and its wear and tear on everyday hfe. It 
can be effectively revealed by focusing on one drive through a narrated 
journey rather than generalizations by a presenter standing alongside a 
traffic queue. 

Real time and compressed time 

The editor can shape and manipulate time by the editing methods we 
have discussed, but any action continuously shown within a shot will 
run its actual time. Apart from slightly speeding up or slowing down 
the replay of the image, there is no way to reorganize the actual time of 
an action shown in full. Shghtly adjusting the speed of the replay 
machine can sometimes allow an over-long action to fit the required 
time slot, but the time adjusted must be smaff otherwise the wrong 
tempo of a shot will become obvious to the viewer. Another method of 
extending the length of a shot is to freeze the last frame of the shot. 
This technique again is dependent on shot content. 

Structuring a sequence 

The chosen structure of a section or sequence will usually have a 
beginning, a development and a conclusion. Editing patterns and the 
narrative context do not necessarily lay out the events of a story in 
simple chronological order. For example, there can be a 'tease' 
sequence, which seeks to engage the audience's attention with a ques- 
tion or a mystery. It may be some time into the material before the 
solution is revealed and the audience's curiosity is satisfied. 

Whatever the shape of the structure, it usually contains one or more 
of the foUowing methods of sequence construction. 

• A narrative sequence is a record of an event such as a child's first 
day at school, an Olympic athlete training in the early morning, 
etc. Narrative sequences teU a strong story and are used to engage 
the audience's interest. 

• A descriptive sequence simply sets the atmosphere or provides 
background information. For example, an item featuring the 
retirement of a watchmaker may have an introductory sequence 
of shots featuring the watches and clocks in his workshop before 
the participant is introduced or interviewed. Essentially, a descrip- 
tive sequence is a scene setter, an overture to the main point of the 
story, although sometimes it may be used as an interlude to break 

224 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

up the texture of the story, or act as a transitional visual bridge to 
a new topic. 
• An explanatory sequence is, as the name implies, a sequence that 
explains either the context of the story, facts about the participants 
or event, or explains an idea. As mentioned before, abstract con- 
cepts such as inflation, land erosion or a rise in unemployment 
usually need a verbal explanatory section backed by 'visual wall- 
paper' - images that are not specific or important in themselves, 
but are needed to accompany the important narration. 
Explanatory sequences are hkely to lose the viewer's interest and 
need to be supported by narrative and description. Explanatory 
exposition is often essential when winding-up an item in order to 
draw conclusions or make explicit the relevance of the events 

The shape of a sequence 

The tempo and shape of a sequence, and of a number of sequences that 
may make up a longer item, will depend on how these methods of 
structuring are cut and arranged. Whether shooting news or documen- 
taries, the transmitted item will be shaped by the editor to connect a 
sequence of shots either visually, by voice-over, atmosphere, music or 
by a combination of any of them. Essentially the cameraman or direc- 
tor must organize the shooting of separate shots with some structure in 
mind. Any activity must be filmed to provide a sufficient variety of 
shots that are able to be cut together following standard editing con- 
ventions (e.g., avoidance of jump cuts, not crossing the line, etc.), and 
that there is enough variety of shot to allow some flexibihty in editing. 
Just as no shot can be considered in isolation (what precedes, what 
follows, always have an effect), every sequence must be considered in 
context with the overall aims of the production. 

The available material that arrives in the edit suite has to be struc- 
tured to achieve the clearest exposition of the subject. Also the edited 
material has to be arranged to find ways of involving the viewer in 
order to hold their interest and attention. Structure is arranging the 
building blocks - the individual unconnected shots, into a stream of 
small visual messages that combine into a coherent whole. For exam- 
ple, a government report on traffic pollution is pubhshed which claims 
that chest ailments have increased, many work hours are lost though 
traffic delay and urges car owners to only use their vehicles for essen- 
tial journeys. 

A possible treatment for this kind of report would be to outHne the 
main points as a voice-over or text graphic, interviews with health 
experts, motorist pressure-group spokesman, a piece to camera by 
the reporter and possibly comments from motorists. The cameraman 
would provide shots of traffic jams, close-ups of car exhausts, pedes- 
trians, interviews, etc. The journaHst would decide the order of the 
material while writing his/her voice-over script, whilst the editor would 
need to cut bridging sequences that could be used on the more 
'abstract' statistics (e.g., increase in asthma in children, etc.). 
Essentially these montages help to hold the viewer's attention and 
provide visual interest on what would otherwise be a dry dehvery of 
facts. A close-up of a baby's face in a pram followed by a cut to a shot 
of a lorry exhaust belching diesel fumes makes a strong, quick, visual 

Shooting for editing 225 

point that requires no additional narrative to explain. The juxtaposi- 
tion of shots, the context and how the viewer reads the connections is 
what structures the item, and aUows the report to have impact. The 
production team in the field must provide appropriate material, but 
the editor can find new relationships and impose an order to fit the 
running time. 

News - unscripted shot structure 

There are a number of editing requirements that will have a bearing on 
the composition of a shot if a camera script has not been prepared 
(e.g., news and some documentaries). Most of the 'magazine' type item 
location work will not be scripted. There may be a rough treatment 
outhned by the presenter or a written brief on what the item should 
cover but an interview may open up new aspects of the story. Without 
pre-planning or a shot list, camera technique will often revert to tried 
and trusted formulas. Telling a story in pictures is as old as the first 
efforts in film making. 

A standard convention in building up a sequence of shots is to move 
from the general to the particular. A wide general view (GV) to show 
relationships and show the individual elements in the scene. The closer 
shots of the individual subjects provide more information and involve- 
ment of the audience. The old Hollywood cliche of 'it's the close-up 
that tells the story, it's the wide shot that sells the picture (show them 
where the money is)' may have structured thousands of popular, con- 
ventional films but it does form the basis of an obvious truth. Unless 
the film maker wishes to dehberately deceive or confuse the audience, 
there is inevitably going to be a mixture of wide and close shots to 
explain, interpret and depict the narrative. The rhythm and arrange- 
ment of size of shot independent of content (which it never is) is a 
three-way creative arrangement between director, cameramen and 
editor. Creating the right framing, viewpoint, size of shot and visual 
style will often be the cameraman's contribution. 

A close-up will give more information than the same subject in long 
shot. But the close-up is also a heavy accent - an emphasis that 
strongly draws the attention of the audience to a specific subject - 
either a face or even more strongly to an object. The emotional 
significance of a close shot of a pistol on a table is stronger than a 
throw-away shot of a car arriving in front of a house. 

The narrative 'weight' of a shot is dependent on the size of the shot 
and also on the composition. Emphasis can be strengthened or ligh- 
tened depending on the reason for the shot. Visual communication in 
this sense is similar to language where a shot can be loaded with strong 
colourful 'adjectives' underhning its significance or can be casually 
thrown away in neutral tones and left to the audience to judge 
its significance or make predictions and guess as to its role in the 

The context of the shot will control the composition. The 'weight' of 
its impact has to be carefully considered and the detail and treatment 
tailored to its role in the production. 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 






«>'' r \ 

Figure 17.2 'Kuleshov and I made 
an interesting experiment. We 
took from some film or other 
several close-ups of the well- 
known Russian actor Mosjukbin. 
We chose close-ups which were 
static and which did not express 
any feeling at all - quiet close-ups. 
We joined these close-ups, which 
were all similar, with other bits of 
film in three different 
combinations. In the first 
combination the close-up of 
Mosjukbin was looking at the 
soup. In the second combination 
the face of Mosjukbin was joined 
in shots showing a coffin in which 
lay a dead woman. In the third the 
close-up was followed by a shot 
of a little girl playing with a funny 
toy bear. When we showed the 
three combinations to an audience 
which had not been let into the 
secret the result was terrific. The 
public raved about the acting of 
the artist. They pointed out the 
heavy pensiveness of his mood 
over the forgotten soup, were 
touched and moved by the deep 
sorrow which looked on the dead 
woman, and admired the light, 
happy smile with which he 
surveyed the girl at play. But we 
knew that in all three cases the 
face was exactly the same.' 
Pudovkin (1939) 

Note: Apparently this 'test' film 
has never been discovered and 
some film historians express 
doubt that it was ever actually 
shot, although the concept 
expressed has been subsequently 

Information and decorative shots 

Most TV news/magazine location items will have a mixture of infor- 
mative and decorative shots. It is part of the cameraman's craft to 
provide the editor/presenter with a variety of options but to keep the 
shooting ratio in proportion to the editing time available. Information 
shots are usually straightforward records of the incident or object. If it 
is technically competent, the information shot requires no more than 
variety in size and reasonable framing. Decorative shots require a 
knowledge of television technique and the ability to exploit video 
and lens characteristics. 

Information shots are specific. They refer to a unique event - the 
wreckage of a car crash, someone scoring a goal, a pohtical speech. 
They are often non-repeatable. The crashed car is towed away, the 
politician moves on. The topicality of an event means that the camera 
technique must be precise and rehable, responding to the event with 
quick reflexes. There is often no opportunity for retakes. 

Decorative shots are non-specific. They are often shot simply to 
give visual padding to the story. A typical example is a shot of an 
interviewee walking in a location before an interview. This shot 
allows the dubbed voice-over to identify who the interviewee is and 
possibly their attitude to the subject. The duration of the shot needs 
to be sufficiently long to allow information that is not featured in the 
interview to be added as a voice-over. The interviewee leaves the 
frame at the end of the shot to provide a cutting point to the inter- 

Solving continuity problems is one reason why the location produc- 
tion unit need to provide additional material to help in the edit. It is a 
developed professional skill to find the happy medium between too 
much material that cannot be previewed in the editing time available, 
and too httle material that gives the edit no flexibiUty if structure, 
running time or story development changes between shooting and 
editing the material. 

Shooting for editing 227 

News values and objectivity 

Hard news is by its nature seldom, if ever, pre-scripted, and therefore 
material is recorded without a written plan. The editor, sometimes 
with a journalist, needs to shape and structure the raw material sup- 
phed as a sequence of unconnected shots. 

It is essential for the news unit to shoot with editing in mind. A 
series of shots have to be meaningfully edited together and this relies 
on the cameraman anticipating edit points. As we have emphasized 
before, nothing is more time-consuming than an attempt to edit a pile 
of cassettes of ill-considered footage into some intelligent and intelli- 
gible form. To avoid this, the editor requires from the cameraman 
maximum flexibility with the material supplied, and the nucleus of a 

News reportage attempts to emphasize fact rather than opinion, but 
journalistic values cannot escape subjective judgements. What is news- 
worthy? What are news values? These questions are answered and 
shaped by the prevailing custom and practices of broadcasting organ- 
izations. Magazine items can use fact, feehng, atmosphere, argument, 
opinion, dramatic reconstruction and subjective impressions. These 
editing techniques differ very httle from feature film storytelhng. For 
a more detailed account of objective and subjective reporting see 
Chapter 11, 'News and documentary'. 

News values are usually related to the intended audience. People are 
more interested in news that affects either their lives, emotions or 
income. They give a higher priority to news that is local, immediate 
(i.e., it is 'new' to them), has dramatic content (crime, rescues, real-life 
crisis), involves well-known personahties and is entertaining or humor- 

Even news editing tries to avoid reminding the audience that they 
are watching an edited version. For example, a typical news item 
where a politician steps off a plane is followed by a cutaway shot of 
cameramen, followed by the pohtician in the airport being interviewed. 
The news item ostensibly deals with fact, while the technique is derived 
from film fiction. Screen time and space has been manipulated and the 
technique employed is invisible to the audience. Whenever selection of 
material is exercised, objectivity is compromised. In news coverage a 
number of choices have to be made in subject, choice of location, 
choice of camera treatment, and selection and arrangement of shots 
in editing. 

It is a news cameraman's complaint that when the editor is up 
against a transmission deadhne, he/she will only quickly preview the 
first part of any cassette, often missing the better shots towards the end 
of the tape. The cameraman can help the editor, wherever possible, by 
putting interviews on one tape and cutaways and supporting material 
on another cassette. This allows the editor to quickly find material 
without shuttling backwards and forwards on the same tape. 

Variety of shot 

In order to compress an item to essential information, the editor 
requires a variety of options. This means a variety of relevant shots 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 17.3 Parts (a) to (f) 
illustrate a news story reporting a 
collision at sea between a 
container ship and a cruise ship. 
Figure (a) shows the container 
ship on fire. Access is vital in 
news coverage and the 
cameraman must attempt to get 
to a position where the vital shot 
that summarizes the story can be 
recorded. Figure (b) is shot on the 
container ship showing the 
'geography' of the item of cargo 
and fire tender. Figure (c) shows 
the damaged cruise ship in port 
and (d) the disappointed 
holidaymakers leaving the ship 
while it is repaired. Figure (e) is an 
interview with one of the 
passengers giving his experience 
of the collision and (f) is a piece- 
to-camera by the reporter (with an 
appropriate background) 
summarizing the story and posing 
questions of who/what was to 






Jj — l'""!?^ 









(a) Container ship on fire 

(b) Container ship and fire tender, 
closer view 




(c) Cruise ship in port, showing damage 

(d) Disappointed holidaymakers 







in order to restructure a continuous event (e.g., a football match, a 
conference speech) and to reduce its original timescale to the running 
order requirement. A continuous 20-minute MCU of a speaker with- 
out audience or relevant cutaways will inevitably lead to a jump cut if 
more than one portion of the speech is required. Take the opportunity 
during a pause, which may signal a new topic, or on applause to 
change the size of shot. Only 'keynote' sentences will be used and a 
difference in shot size at these points will avoid irrelevant cutaways to 
shorten the item. Pans, zooms and tilts can be used in a number of 
ways if the shot is held for five seconds or more before the start and at 
the end of the camera movement. 

Brevity and significance 

The pressure of cutting an item down to a short running time for news 
will impose its own disciphne on shooting and editing in selecting only 
what is significant and using the shots that best sum up the essence of 

Shooting for editing 229 

the story. The length of a shot depends on its function. The value of a 
shot is its relevance to the story in hand. One single 15-second shot 
may sum up the item but be superfluous in any other context. Check 
that the vital shots are provided and at the right length before offering 
visual decoration to the item. Editing for news means reducing to 
essentials. Make certain that shot length aUows for brevity in editing 
and the relevant cutaways are provided for interviews. The viewer will 
require longer on-screen time to assimilate the information in a long 
shot than to absorb the detail in a close shot. Moving shots require 
more perceptual effort to understand than static shots. The skill in 
news shooting/cutting can be summarized as: 

• each shot must be relevant to the story; 

• shoot more detail than geography shots or scene setting; 

• shoot more close, static shots than ones with camera movement; 

• if possible, use short pans (no more than two seconds long ) to 
inject pace into a story; 

• devise a structure that contains pace, shot variety, and dynamic 
relevant images. 

An appropriate shot 

Every shot should be recorded for a purpose. That purpose is at its 
weakest if it simply seemed a good idea at the time to the cameraman 
or director, etc., to record a shot 'just in case' without considering its 
potential context. No shot can exist in isolation. A shot must have a 
connection with the aim of the item and its surrounding shots. It must 
be shot with editing in mind. This purpose could be related to the 
item's brief, script, outhne or decided at the location. It could follow 
on from an interview comment or reference. It could be shot to 
help condense time or it could be offered as a 'safety' shot to allow 
flexibility in cutting the material. 

There is very little point in providing a number of shots if they are 
unusable because of wrong exposure or if they are out of focus or the 
colour temperature is incorrect or if they are shaky and badly framed 
and important action begins before the recording is sufficiently stable 
to make an edit. 


Be aware of possible continuity mismatch between shots in back- 
ground as weU as foreground information. As well as changes over 
time (weather, hght, face tones) watch for changing background action 
that will prevent intercutting. Avoid staging interviews against signific- 
ant movement (e.g., a crowd emptying from an arena or a prominent 
working crane) as background continuity mismatch may prevent the 
interview being shortened. If possible, have different parts of the back- 
ground in the singles and two shots if there is significant continuity of 
movement in the background or choose a static, neutral background. 
Keep a check on the position of coats, hats, chp-on microphones, 
attitudes of body and head on singles so that they can be matched 
on two shots. 

The style and structure of the composition of a shot also requires a 
measure of continuity. It was mentioned eariier that the internal space 

230 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

of the shot created by very wide or a very narrow lens angles must be 
consistent within a sequence of shots to avoid a mismatch of apparent 
scene perspective. There is also the need to match shots that have 
strong hne convergencies created by a wide-angle lens and a close 
camera-to-subject distance. 

An individual style of camerawork can be seen as an individual's 
preference for a certain type of compositional 'look'. Some cameramen 
will favour a larger proportion of low-angle shots than average. Others 
devise complex camera movement or seek ambiguous images that 
tease the viewer into detecting and unravelling the image. In such 
instances, there is no problem with the compositional match during 
a sequence of shots because the individual preferences or style will or 
should remain consistent throughout the production. Problems only 
occur where someone is dabbhng with a number of different 'looks' 
and a sequence of shots have no visual continuity. 

Shot size 

Avoid similar sized shots, whether in framing, scale, horizon line, etc., 
unless you provide a bridging shot. For example, a medium shot of an 
interviewee will not cut with a tight over-the-shoulder favouring the 
interviewee in the same medium-size shot. Wide shots of sea and boats 
need to be intercut with closer shots of boats to avoid the horizon hne 
jumping in frame. Make certain that the all-over geometry of a shot is 
sufficiently different from a similar sized shot of the same subject (e.g., 
GVs of landscapes). In general, television is a close-up medium. Big 
wide-angle shots do not have the same impact they might have on a 
larger screen. 

Crossing the line 

To recap about the convention of crossing the hne (see Figure 1.3). To 
intercut between individual shots of two people to create the appear- 
ance of a normal conversation between them, three simple rules have 
to be observed. If the interviewee in a single is looking from left to 
right in the frame then the single of the interviewer must look right to 
left. Secondly, the shot size and eye hne should match (i.e., they should 
individually be looking out of the frame at a point where the viewer 
anticipates the other speaker is standing). FinaUy, every shot of a 
sequence should stay the same side of an imaginary line drawn 
between the speakers unless a cutaway is recorded that allows a re- 
orientation on the opposite side of the old 'line' (e.g., either the speak- 
ers re-group or the camera moves on shot). 

It is easy to forget eye hne direction when recording questions or 
'noddies' after an interview has been recorded, particularly with a 
three-hander or when equipment is being demonstrated or explained. 
Make certain that the camera stays on one side only of the imaginary 
line drawn between the interviewer and interviewee. 

Leaving frame 

Do not always foUow the action, especially on 'VIP' items where the 
temptation is to keep the 'notable' in shot at aU times. It can some- 
times help in editing if the subject leaves the frame, but hold the empty 

Shooting for editing 231 

frame for a few seconds and, on the new shot, hold the empty frame 
before the subject enters as it enables the editor to choose between 
cutting or not on a moving subject (see Figure 17.1). 

Five-second module 

News items tend to be constructed on an approximate live-second 
module. An example of a running order of a news story might be: 

12" voice-over establishing shots 
10" presenter to camera 
10" voice-over 

25" interview (with cutaways) 
7" voice-over 

running time of item: 1 minute 04 seconds. 

To allow maximum flexibihty for the editor, try to shoot in multiples 
of five seconds. Keep zooms and pans short. For example: 

10" hold at start of zoom (or pan) 

5/10" zoom (or pan) 

5/10" hold at end of movement. 

This allows the editor a choice of three shots. 

Length of pan 

Avoid long panning or development shots. Although it may be diffi- 
cult, depending on the circumstances, try to begin and end a camera 
movement cleanly. It is difficult to cut into a shot that creeps into or 
out of a movement. Be positive when you change framing. Use a 
tripod whenever possible as unsteady shots are difficult to cut and a 
distraction to the viewer. 

Cutaway and cut-in 

A cutaway hterally means to cut away from the main subject or topic, 
either as a reaction to the event (e.g., cutting to a hstener reacting to 
what a speaker is saying) or to support the point being made (e.g., a 
speaker discussing slum property is cutaway from to see the type of 
building they are talking about). 

A cut-in usually means to go tighter on an aspect of the main sub- 
ject. For example, an antiques expert talking in mid-shot about the 
manufacturer's mark on a piece of pottery she is holding would require 
a cut-in close shot of the pottery for the item to make sense to the 

cached visual metaphor 

Just as there are stale and worn-out verbal metaphors, so there are 
visual cliches that have been over-used. These include weak attempts 
at copying mainstream feature film genres and techniques such as 
humour, suspense or shock eifects. Attempt visual connections that 
are original and fresh. Rethink first, obvious thoughts and attempt to 

232 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

find fresh visual or audio relationships. Avoid using superimposed text 
to describe what is visually plainly obvious (e.g., a shot of a village 
signpost identifying the location has it name superimposed over the 

Recap on basic advice for shooting for editing 

There must be a reason in editing to change shot and the cameraman 
has to provide a diversity of material to provide a cutting point. In 
general a change of shot will be unobtrusive: 

• if there is a significant change in shot size or camera angle when 
intercutting on the same subject; 

• if there is a significant change in content (e.g., a cut from a tractor 
to someone opening a farm gate); 

• when cutting on action - the flow of movement in the frame is 
carried over into the succeeding shot (e.g., a man in medium shot 
sitting behind a desk stands up and, on his rise, a longer shot of the 
man and the desk is cut to, see Figure 17.1); 

• when intercutting between people, if their individual shots are 
matched in size, have the same amount of headroom, have the 
same amount of looking space if in semi-profile, if the lens angle 
is similar (i.e., internal perspective is similar) and if the lens height 
is the same; 

• if the intercut pictures are colour matched (e.g., skin tones, back- 
ground brightness, etc.) and if in succeeding shots the same subject 
has a consistent colour (e.g., grass in a stadium); 

• if there is continuity in action (e.g., body posture, attitude); 

• if there is continuity in fighting, in sound, props and setting, and 
continuity in performance or presentation. 

On unscripted items such as news and TV magazine items: 

• provide the editor with a higher proportion of static shots to 
camera movement. It is difficult to cut between pans and zooms 
until they steady to a static frame and hold; 

• try to find relevant but non-specific shots so that voice-over infor- 
mation to set the scene or report can be dubbed on after the script 
has been prepared. 


The interview is an essential element of news and magazine reporting. 
It provides for a factual testimony from an active participant similar to 
a witness's court statement; that is, direct evidence of their own under- 
standing, not rumour or hearsay. They can speak about what they feel, 
what they think, what they know, from their own experience. An 
interviewee can introduce into the report opinion, beliefs and emotion 
as opposed to the reporter who traditionally sticks to the facts. An 
interviewee therefore provides colour and emotion into an objective 
assessment of an event and captures the audience's attention. A first- 

Shooting for editing 233 

hand account by people involved in an incident are facts in themselves. 
It is often spontaneous and vivid in its description and delivery. 
Because of the nature of some personal testament, its emotional 
impact can overwhelm other factual comments. The structure of 
such an item needs careful consideration to avoid distortion when 
using interviews that contain strong emotional appeals if these are 
balanced against more low-key reasoned argument. 

Use of 'Vox Pops', random street interviews, is another method to 
provide the mood and opinions of the public. Its weakness is that, to 
some extent, the participants are self-selecting and it favours only 
those willing to talk to a reporter and a camera on a street corner. 
These people's opinions may be eccentric and not an accurate repre- 
sentation of the majority view. 

Cutting an interview 

A standard interview convention is to estabhsh who the interviewee is 
by superimposing their name and possibly some other identification 
(e.g., farmer, market street trader, etc.) in text across an MCU of 
them. The interview is often cut using a combination of basic shots 
such as: 

• an MS, MCU or CU of the interviewee; 

• a matched shot of the interviewer asking questions or reacting to 
the answers (usually shot after the interview has ended); 

• a two shot, which establishes location and relationship between 
the participants or an over-the-shoulder two shot looking from 
interviewer to interviewee; 

• the interviewee is often staged so that their background is relevant 
to their comments. 

The interview can foUow straightforward intercutting between ques- 
tion and answer of the participants but, more usually, after a few 
words from the interviewee establishing their presence, a series of cut- 
aways are used to illustrate the points the interviewee are making. A 
basic interview technique requires the appropriate basic shots: 

• matched shots in size and lens angle; 

• over-the-shoulder (o/s) shots; 

• intercutting on question and answer; 

• cutaways to referred items in the interview; 

• 'noddies' and reaction shots (note: reaction shots should be reac- 
tions - that is, a response to the main subject); 

• cutaways to avoid jump cuts when shortening answers. 

How long should a shot be held? 

The simple answer to this question is as long as the viewer needs to 
extract the required information, or before the action depicted requires 
a wider or closer framing to satisfy the viewers curiosity or a different 
shot (e.g., someone exiting the frame) to foUow the action. The on- 
screen length is also dependent on many more subtle considerations 
than the specific content of the shot. 

234 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

As discussed above, the rhythm of the editing produced by rate of 
shot change, and the shaping of the rate of shot change to produce an 
appropriate shape to a sequence, will have a bearing on how long a shot 
is held on screen. Rhythm rehes on variation of shot length, but should 
not be arbitrarily imposed simply to add interest. As always with edit- 
ing, there is a balance to be struck between clear communication and 
the need to hold the viewer's interest with visual variety. The aim is to 
clarify and emphasize the topic, not to confuse the viewer with shots 
that are snatched off the screen before they are visually understood. 

The critical factor controlling on-screen duration is often the shot 
size. A long shot may have a great deal more information than a close 
shot. Also, a long shot is often used to introduce a new location or to 
set the 'geography' of the action. These features will be new to the 
audience, and therefore they will take longer to understand and absorb 
the information. Shifting visual information produced by moving 
shots will also need longer screen time. 

A closer shot will usually yield its content fairly quickly, particularly 
if the content has been seen before (e.g., a well known 'screen' face). 
There are other psychological aspects of perception that also have a 
bearing on how quickly an audience can recognize images that are 
flashed on to a screen. These factors are exploited in those commer- 
cials that have a very high cutting rate, but are not part of standard 
news/magazine editing technique. 

Although news/magazine editing is always paring an item down to 
essential shots, due consideration should always be given to the subject 
of the item. For example, a news item about the funeral of a victim of a 
civil disaster or crime has to have pauses and 'quiet' on-screen time to 
reflect the feelings and emotion of the event. Just as there is a need to 
have changes of pace and rhythm in editing a piece to give a particu- 
larly overall shape, so a news bulletin or magazine running order wifl 
have an overall requirement for changes of tempo between hard and 
soft items to provide balance and variety. 

Cutting on movement 

A change of shot requires a measurable time for the audience to adjust 
to the incoming shot. If the shot is part of a series of shots showing an 
event or action, the viewer wifl be able to foUow the flow of action 
across the cut if the editor has selected an appropriate point to cut on 
movement. This will move the viewer into the next part of the action 
without them consciously realizing a cut has occurred. An edit point in 
the middle of an action disguises the edit point. 

Cutting on movement is the bedrock of editing. It is the preferred 
option in cutting, compared with most other editing methods, pro- 
vided the sequence has been shot to include action edit points. 
When breaking down a sequence of shots depicting a continuous 
action there are usuaUy five questions faced by the editor: 

1. what is visually interesting? 

2. what part of a shot is necessary to advance the 'story' of the topic? 

3. how long can the sequence last? 

4. has the activity been adequately covered on camera? 

5. is there a suificient variety of shots to serve the above require- 

Shooting for editing 


Figure 17.4 

Crossing the line 


i\/lal<ing a cup of tea 



r ""-3 


- ^^, 






■ — /// 







These shots (a) and (b) wiii need a 
cutaway between them to avoid a jump cut 

Action can be staged to avoid 
continuous cutting. The shot 
demonstrating the difficulty of 
opening the tea caddy can be 
developed to demonstrate the 
difficulty of picking up the tea bag 
(d) and left to form a continuous 
shot unless there is a need to 
condense time. 

Staging action 

Making a cup of tea 

Watch for continuity mismatch. 
There is milk in the mug in (e) 
(figure demonstrates difficulty in 
handling a teaspoon) which may 
be picked up if the shot showing 
the problems opening a milk 
container (f) follows. 

Check continuity 


I \ \ \ 







For example, a story to be edited concerns the difficulties disabled 
people have with normal everyday domestic apphances. A sequence 
was shot where the subject of the report was making a cup of tea (see 
Figure 17.4) to illustrate these problems. The intention was for the 
reporter, on a voice-over commentary, to identify each hazard. 

The editor has a guide to the length of the sequence which equals the 
running time of the relevant voice-over. Next he has a guide to what is 
significant - what will advance the story. The voice-over may mention 
for example, difficulties in turning on a tap, pouring boiling water into 
a tea pot, pouring out the tea, opening a milk carton, etc. The vital 
factor, of course, is whether shots covering these activities have been 
provided by the location crew, and crucially, if they can be cut 

With this kind of sequence, the editor needs to be economic with the 
use of screen time using only so much of a specific action (e.g., turning 

236 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

on a tap), to provide the viewer witli the necessary visual information 
whilst advancing the point of the 'story'. The total running time of the 
recorded event has to be pared down by selecting only essential parts 
of necessary shots to fit the voice-over. Cutting on movement, such as 
hands coming in and out of frame, wih allow the whole activity to be 
collapsed into half-a-dozen close shots, wasting no screen time on 
irrelevant action (for example - searching the kitchen for the tea 
pot). Cutting on action such as movement in the frame, will provide 
the motivation for the cuts and aUow compression of the activity with- 
out the viewer being aware that the event has been considerably 
speeded up. 

Cutting on exits and entrances 

One of the basic principles of perennial editing technique is that each 
shot foUows the line of action to maintain consistent screen direction 
so that the geography of the action is completely intelhgible. A 
sequence of shots foUowing someone walking down a street can be 
cut so that they enter and leave frame in suitable changing size of shot 
or different camera angle, following their walk from one frame into the 
next frame, always moving across the frame in the same direction until 
an appropriate shot shows the audience that they have changed direc- 
tion (e.g., walked around a corner and into a new street ). For the 
novice editor, the problem is to decide at what point in each shot they 
should make the cut to the next shot. 

Cutting on exits and entrances into a frame is a standard way of 
reducing the amount of screen time taken to traverse distance. The 
usual convention is to make the cut when the subject has nearly left the 
frame. It is natural for the viewer, if the subject is disappearing out of 
the side of the frame, to wish to be shown where they are going. If the 
cut comes after they have left the frame then the viewer is left with an 
empty frame and either their interest switches to whatever is left in the 
frame or they feel frustrated because the subject of their interest has 
gone. Conversely, the incoming frame can have the subject just 
appearing, but the match on action has to be good otherwise there 
will be an obtrusive jump in their walking rhythm or some other 
posture mismatch. 

Allowing the subject to clear the frame in the outgoing shot and not 
be present in the incoming shot is usually the lazy way of avoiding 
continuity mismatches. An empty frame at the end of a shot is already 
'stale' to the viewer. If it is necessary, because there is no possibihty in 
the shots provided of matching up the action across the cut, try to use 
the empty frame of the incoming shot (which is new to the viewer) 
before the action begins to avoid continuity problems. This convention 
can be apphed to any movement across a cut. In general, choose an 
empty frame on an incoming shot rather than the outgoing shot unless 
there is the need for a 'visual' full stop to end a sequence. Ending on an 
empty frame is usually foUowed by a fade-down or mix across to the 
new scene. 

Perception and sfiot transition 

Film and television screens display a series of single images for a very 
short period of time. Because of the nature of human perception (per- 

Shooting for editing 237 

sistence of vision), if tliese images are displayed at an effective rate of 
48/50 times a second, flicker is reduced and tliere is the illusion of 
continuous motion of any subject that changes position in succeeding 

It takes time for a change of shot to be registered and, with large 
discrepancies between shot transitions, it becomes more apparent to 
the viewer when the composition of both shots is dissimilar. If the 
programme maker aims to make the transition between shots to be 
as imperceptible as possible in order to avoid visually distracting the 
viewer, the amount of eye movement between cuts needs to be at a 
minimum. If the incoming shot is sufficiently similar in design (e.g., 
matching the principal subject position and size in both shots), the 
movement of the eye will be minimized and the change of shot will 
hardly be noticeable. There is, however, a critical point in matching 
identical shots to achieve an unobtrusive cut (e.g., cutting together the 
same size shot of the same individual where possibly there is only the 
smallest difference in the angle of the head), where the jump between 
almost identical shots becomes noticeable. 

Narrative motivation for changing the shot (e.g.. What happens 
next? What is this person doing? etc.), wiU also smooth the transition. 
A large mismatch between two shots, for example, where action on the 
left of frame is cut to when the previous shot has significant action on 
extreme right of frame, may take the viewer four or five frames to 
catch up with the change and may trigger a 'What happened then?' 
response. If a number of these 'jump' cuts (i.e., shot transitions that 
are noticeable to the audience), are strung together, the viewer 
becomes very aware of the mechanics of the production process and 
the smooth flow of images is disrupted. This 'visual' disruption, of 
course, may sometimes be a production objective. 

Matching visual design between shots 

When two shots are cut together, the visual design, that is the compo- 
sition of each shot, can be matched to achieve smooth continuity. 
Alternatively, if the production requirement is for the cut to impact 
on the viewer, the juxtaposition of the two shots can be so arranged to 
provide an abrupt contrast in their graphic design. 

The cut between two shots can be made invisible if the incoming 
shot has one or more similar compositional elements as the preceding 
shot. The relationships between the two shots may relate to matching 
shape, same position of dominant subject in the frame, colours, light- 
ing, setting, overall composition, etc. Any equivalent aspects of visual 
design that are present in both shots wiU help the smooth transition 
from one shot to the next. 

With intercut dialogue shots (especially noticeable in widescreen 
format), often the protagonists are framed in separate shots on either 
side of the screen to indicate they are spatially hnked. The empty space 
on one side of the frame indicating the presence of the other. On each 
cut the incoming image fills the space left in the outgoing image. 

A popular use of this in news/current affairs programmes is the Vox 
Pop sequence where members of the pubhc are asked their opinion on 
a subject and their answers intercut with those positive about the 
subject on one side of the frame, and those negative about the subject 
are framed in their individual shots on the other side of the frame. 

238 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Depending on the questions and answers, the cut sequence has the 
appearance of a dialogue between the participants even though they 
have never met and conversed amongst themselves. 

Matching rhythm relationships between shots 

The editor needs to consider two types of rhythm when cutting 
together shots: the rhythm created by the rate of shot change, and 
the internal rhythm of the depicted action. 

Each shot will have a measurable time on screen. The rate at which 
shots are cut creates a rhythm that affects the viewer's response to the 
sequence. For example, in a feature film action sequence, a common 
way of increasing the excitement and pace of the action is to increase 
the cutting rate by decreasing the duration of each shot on screen as 
the action approaches a climax. The rhythms introduced by editing are 
in addition to the other rhythms created by artiste movement, camera 
movement and the rhythm of sound. The editor can therefore adjust 
shot duration and shot rate independent of the need to match 
continuity of action between shots; this controls an acceleration or 
deceleration in the pace of the item. 

By controlling the editing rhythm, the editor controls the amount of 
time the viewer has to grasp and understand the selected shots. Many 
productions exploit this fact in order to create an atmosphere of mys- 
tery and confusion by ambiguous framing and rapid cutting that delib- 
erately undermines the viewer's attempt to make sense of the images 
they are shown. 

Another editing consideration is maintaining the rhythm of action 
carried over into succeeding shots. Most people have a strong sense of 
rhythm as expressed in walking, marching, dancing, etc. If this rhythm 
is destroyed as, for example, cutting together a number of shots of a 
marching band so that their step becomes irregular, viewers will sense 
the discrepancies and the sequence will appear disjointed and awk- 
ward. When cutting from a shot of a person walking, for example, 
care must be taken that the person's foot hits the ground with the same 
rhythm as in the preceding shot, and that it is the appropriate foot 
(i.e., after a left foot comes a right foot). The rhythm of a person's 
walk may still be detected even if the incoming shot does not include 
the feet. The beat of the movement must not be disrupted. Sustaining 
rhythms of action may well override the need for a narrative 'ideal' cut 
at an earlier or later point. 

IVIatching spatial relationships between shots 

Editing creates spatial relationships between subjects that need never 
exist in reality. A common example is a passenger getting into a train 
at a station. The following shot shows a train pulhng out of the sta- 
tion. The audience infers that the passenger is on the train when they 
are more probably on an entirely different train or even no train at all. 
Cause and effect patterns occur continuously in editing. A shot of an 
apple falhng off a tree followed by a shot of Isaac Newton rubbing his 
head, must inevitably lead the viewer to conclude that Newton has 
been hit by the very same apple. This assumption is a combination of 
what the viewer knows (an apple apocryphally fell on Newton) and 
what is shown, and then mentally connecting the two shots in a cause/ 

Shooting for editing 239 

effect relationship. For example, a reporter in medium close-up nods 
her interest in what the interviewee is saying. The viewer's assumption 
is that the reporter at that moment is Ustening to the interviewee when, 
in fact, the 'noddies' were shot some time after the interviewee had left 
the location. 

Any two subjects or events can be linked by a cut if there is an 
apparent graphic continuity between shots framing them, and if 
there is an absence of an estabhshing shot showing their physical 
relationship. Portions of space can be cut together to create a convin- 
cing screen space provided no shot is wide enough to show that the 
edited relationship is not possible. For example, a shot of a person 
leaning against a signpost can be cut with a shot of a person sitting on 
a wall; these shots can be intercut and, to the viewer, hold a behevable 
conversation together provided there is no shot that either reveals that 
there is no wall by the signpost, or no signpost by the wall. 

Matching temporal relationships between shots 

The position of a shot in relation to other shots (preceding or follow- 
ing) will control the viewer's understanding of its time relationship to 
surrounding shots. Usually a factual event is cut in a hnear time hne 
unless indicators are built in to signal flashbacks or, very rarely, flash- 
forwards. The viewer assumes the order of depicted events is hnked to 
the passing of time. 

The standard formula for compressing space and time is to allow the 
main subject to leave frame or to provide appropriate cutaways to 
shorten the actual time taken to complete the activity. While they 
are out of shot, the viewer will accept that greater distance has been 
travelled than is reahstically possible. Provided the main subject does 
not in vision leap from location one immediately to location two, and 
then to three and four, there wiU be no jump in continuity between 
shots. The empty frames and cutaways allow the editing-out of space 
and time to remain invisible. News editing frequently requires a reduc- 
tion in screen time of the actual duration of a real event. For example, 
a 90-minute football match recording will be edited down to 
30 seconds to run as a 'highhghts' report in a news bulletin. 

Screen time is seldom made greater than the event time, but there 
are instances, for example in reconstructions of a crime in a documen- 
tary, where time is expanded by editing. This stylistic mannerism is 
often accompanied by slow-motion sequences. 

Matching tone, colour or background 

Cutting between shots of speakers with different background tones, 
colour or texture wiU sometimes result in an obtrusive cut. A cut 
between a speaker with a bright background and a speaker with a 
dark background will result in a 'jump' in the flow of images each 
time it occurs. Colour temperature matching and background bright- 
ness relies on the cameraman making the right exposure and artiste 
positioning decisions. Particular problems can occur, for example, 
with grass that changes its colour between shots. Face tones of a 
presenter or interviewee need to be consistent across a range of 
shots when cut together in a sequence. Also, cutting between shots 
with in-focus and defocused backgrounds to speakers can produce a 


Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Figure 17.5 The duration of an 
event can be considerably 
shortened to a fraction of its 
actual running time by editing if 
the viewer's concept of time 
passing is not violated. For 
example, a politician enters a 
conference centre and delivers a 
speech to an audience. This whole 
event, possibly lasting 30 minutes 
or more, can be reduced to 15 
seconds of screen time by cutting 
between the appropriate shots. 

In the first shot (a), the politician 
is seen entering the building with 
a voice-over giving details of the 
purpose of the visit. A cutaway to 
an audience shot with a pan to the 
politician on the platform ((b) to 
ic)), allows all the intervening time 
to be collapsed without a jump 
cut, and also allows the voice-over 
to paraphrase what the politician 
is saying. A third, closer, profile 
shot of the politician (d), followed 
by a shot of the listening audience 
(e), continues with the voice-over 
paraphrase, ending with a MCU of 
the politician (f), with his actuality 
sound, delivering the key 'sound 
bite' sentence of his speech. A 
combination of voice-over and five 
shots that can be cut together 
maintaining continuity of time and 
place allows a 30-minute event to 
be delivered in 15-20 seconds 


(c) To politician speaking 
(v/o continues) 

(b) Pan from audience.. 


(d) Profile shot of politician 
(v/o continues) 

(e) Cutaway to audience 


(f) MCU of politician - actuality sound of speech 

mismatch on a cut. Cominuity of colour, tone, texture, skin tones and 
depth-of-field, will improve the seamless flow of images. 

Rearranging time and space 

When two shots are cut together the audience attempts to make a 
connection between them. Expanding the example given above, a 
man on a station platform boards a train. A wide shot shows a train 

Shooting for editing 


pulling out of a station. The audience makes the connection that the 
man is on the train. A cut to a close shot of the seated man foUows, 
and it is assumed that he is travelling on the train. We see a wide shot 
of a train crossing the Forth Bridge, and the audience assumes that the 
man is travelhng in Scotland. Adding a few more shots would allow a 
shot of the man leaving the train at his destination with the audience 
experiencing no violent discontinuity in the depiction of time or space. 
And yet a journey that may take two hours is collapsed to 30 seconds 
of screen time, and a variety of shots of trains and a man at different 
locations have been strung together in a manner that convinces the 
audience they have followed the same train and man throughout a 

Basic editing principles 

This way of arranging shots is fundamental to editing. Space and time 
are rearranged in the most efficient way to present the information that 
the viewer requires to follow the argument presented. The transition 
between shots must not violate the audiences sense of continuity 
between the actions presented. This can be achieved by: 

• Continuity of action: action is carried over from one shot to 
another without an apparent break in speed or direction of move- 
ment. In a medium shot, for example, (Figure 17.6(a)), someone 
places a book on a table out of shot. A cut to a closer shot of 
the book (Figure 17.6(b)), shows the book just before it is laid on 
the table. Provided the book's position relative to the table and the 
speed of the book's movement in both shots is similar, and there is 
continuity in the table surface, lighting, hand position, etc., then 
the cut will not be obtrusive. A close shot that crosses the hne 
(Figure 17.6(c)), will not cut. 

• Screen direction: if the book is travelling left to right in the med- 
ium shot, the closer shot of the book will need to roughly follow 
the same direction. A shot of the book moving right to left will 
produce a visual 'jump' that may be apparent to the viewer. 

• Eye line match: the eye hne of someone looking down at the book 
should be in the direction the audience believes the book to be. If 
they look out of frame with their eye hne levelled at their own 
height, the implication is that they are looking at something at that 
height. Whereas if they were looking down, the assumption would 
be that they are looking at the book. An interviewer and an inter- 
viewee in separate shots must be eye hne matched in order to cut 
between them. Their eye line out of frame must match with the 
audience's expectation of where the person they are talking to is 

• There is a need to cement the spatial relationship between shots: a 
subject speaking and looking out of the left of frame will be 
assumed by the viewer to speaking to someone off-camera to the 
left. A cut to another person looking out of frame to the right will 
confirm this audience expectation. Eye Hne matches are decided by 
position, and there is very Httle that can be done at the editing 
stage to correct shooting mismatches except flipping the frame to 

242 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

reverse the eye line, which alters the continuity of the symmetry of 
the face and other left/right continuity elements in the composition 
such as hair partings, etc. 
• Shot size: another essential editing factor is the size of shots that 
form an intercut sequence of faces. A cut from a medium close-up 
to another medium close-up of a second person wiU be unobtru- 
sive provided the eye line match is as above. A number of cuts 
between a long shot of one person and a medium close-up of 
another wiU jump and be obtrusive. 

Types of edit 

There are a number of standard editing techniques that are used across 
a wide range of programme making. These include: 

• Intercutting editing can be applied to locations or people. The 
technique of intercutting between different actions that are hap- 
pening simultaneously at different locations was discovered as 
early as 1906 to inject pace and tension into a story. Intercutting 
on faces in the same location presents the viewer with changing 
viewpoints on action and reaction. 

• Analytical editing breaks a space down into separate framings. The 
classic sequence begins with a long shot to show relationships and 
the 'geography' of the setting followed by closer shots to show 
detail, and to focus on important action. 

• Contiguity editing follows action through different frames of chan- 
ging locations. The classic pattern of shots in a western chase 
sequence is where one group of horsemen ride through the 
frame past a distinctive tree to be followed later, in the same 
framing, of the pursuers riding through shot past the same dis- 
tinctive tree. The tree acts as a 'signpost' for the audience to estab- 
Hsh location, and as a marker of the duration of elapsed time 
between the pursued and the pursuer. 

• Point-of-view shot estabhshes the relationship between different 
spaces. Someone on-screen looks out of one side of the frame. 
The following shot reveals what the person is looking at. This 
can also be applied to anyone moving and looking out of frame, 
followed by their moving point-of-view shot. 

Emphasis, tempo and syntax 

Just as a written report of an event will use a structure of sentence, 
paragraph and chapter, a visual report can structure the elements of 
the storytelhng in a similar way. By adjusting the shot length and fine 
tuning the rate and rhythm of the cuts and the juxtaposition of the 
shots, the editor can create emphasis and significance. 

A piece can be cut to relate a number of connected ideas. When the 
report moves on to a new idea there is often a requirement to indicate 
visually - 'new topic'. This can be achieved by a very visible cut - a 
mismatch perhaps or an abrupt change of sound level or content (e.g.. 

Shooting for editing 243 

quiet interior is followed by a cut to a marching band on parade) to 
call attention to a transitional moment. 

Teasing the audience 

A linear, logical progression of the story is not the only way to hold 
the viewer's attention. Often, a puzzle is set up or a question is posed 
to draw the audience into the story. Like a mystery novel, clues are 
given before the denouement at the end. This is obviously a fairly 
lightweight treatment and would be inappropriate in many hard- 
news stories. 

Be sparing with editing structures that visually tease the audience 
with sequences that are ambiguous or mystifying. The technique of 
withholding the connection between succeeding shots until the Hnk 
shot is shown, risks losing the audience's attention and interest. Too 
complicated a clue to a crossword puzzle may alienate the salver's 
interest. However, a montage that puzzles the viewer may also engage 
his interest. 

The viewer will always believe that the programme maker has some 
reason for putting a shot on the screen - unless a production con- 
tinually misleads them. 

Sort it out in thie edit 

Lastly, as we have already stressed, a location shoot for a two-minute 
item that results in ten 20-minute cassettes with no thought to its 
eventual structure other than a misguided beUef that it can all be 
sorted out in editing, can end in a long and inefficient trawl through 
inappropriate material. Transcribing the random letters produced by a 
monkey and a keyboard into meaningful words, then sentences, then 
an article, is probably easier. TV production requires planning, 
thought and structure from shooting right through to the master tape. 

Sound and picture 

The importance of audio may be overlooked in acquisition but any 
shortcomings will become increasingly obvious in editing. In nearly 
every type of production, sound and picture interweave and are 
mutually dependent. It is vital that the range of audio recorded 
(apart from being technically perfect) matches the visual coverage in 
providing the editor with flexibility and creative choice. 

Multi-camera camerawork 

The value of multi-camera technique is its ability to simultaneously 
observe a continuous event from a number of different camera posi- 
tions. A continuous actuality event such as sport, music, state and 
public events, audience discussion, etc., can be transmitted live or 
continuously recorded to be transmitted later. Traditional multi-cam- 
era technique required each camera's picture to be selected through the 
vision mixing panel and cut to 'hne' (i.e., transmitted or recorded) in 
accordance with a pre-rehearsed camera script detailing all agreed 
shots, or as a mixture of ad lib shots and pre-planned shots. 

244 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

In order to comprehensively cover a continuous event sucli as 
sport, each camera is assigned a role. Covering a football match, 
for example, one camera wiU mostly stay wide as a master or safety 
shot that can be cut to at any time, whilst the other cameras wiU stay 
close for 'personality' close-ups of individual players. Cameras stick 
to their assigned role in order to provide the director with a guar- 
anteed appropriate shot at all times, otherwise duplication of the 
same shot occurs. 

With the expansion in the use of 'iso' (isolated) feeds, that is an 
individual camera's output is continuously recorded as well as being 
available at the mixing panel, a great amount of flexibihty is available 
in post-production to re-edit the recorded material. Iso feeds began as 
a technique to provide variation of shot for instant 'slo mo' playback 
at live sports events. Now, some non-sport multi-camera productions 
'iso' each camera and use post-production to complete the edit. 

The basis of multi-camera techniques of composition is very similar 
to single camera operations except that: 

cameramen need good communications between producer and 

crew and, if possible, exposure needs to be centrally controlled 

to match pictures; 

the shots are instantaneously edited and therefore need to be 

matched in size; 

the shots need to be coordinated to avoid duplication and to 

provide variety and cutting points; 

with a live transmission a shot has to be ready and executed at the 

instant it is required - not when the cameraman is ready to record; 

there can be no retakes - camerawork problems are not edited out, 

they are transmitted. 

Working as a team 

As we have discussed in the section on the legacy of film technique, the 
skiUs and techniques used to make a TV programme should not be 
apparent to the average television viewer. If the viewer becomes aware 
of technique it will usually distract from the content of the pro- 
gramme. Camera technique should be invisible and this requires 
matched and consistent camerawork between all cameras on a multi- 
camera shoot. Unhke single camerawork where an operator may have 
his own idiosyncratic ways of framing and personal preferences of shot 
size, multi-camera work requires cameramen to coordinate their fram- 
ing and composition to avoid 'jump cuts' between shots. The descrip- 
tion and the framing of the shot needs to be understood by cameraman 
and director (see Figure 12.2) but also: 

• headroom should be consistent and adjusted to suit the size of 

• the amount of looking room should match for similar sized shots 
(see Figure 17.7); 

• each camera should have the same lens perspective and same cam- 
era height when involved in cross-cutting on interviews, etc.; 

• the pace of camera movement and style of composition should 

Shooting for editing 


Figure 17.7 

Eyes positioned at approx. iialf frame 

Balanced 'lool<ing room' on intercut sliots 

As well as matching the style of camerawork there needs to be a 
technical match between the cameras. A grey-scale line-up before 
transmission ensures a colour match between cameras - for example, 
the skin tones of a face on different cameras needs to be the same. Also 
remote control of exposure and black level ensures a better match 
when intercutting cameras. 

Matched shot size and the position in the frame of the subject can be 
observed and easily adjusted in a multi-camera shoot to allow smooth 
and 'invisible' cutting. In single camera/single shot coverage there is 
obviously the need to keep careful records of eye hnes, body position, 
shot-size and other visual indicators in order to achieve visual conti- 
nuity in post-production. 

Dance and composition 

As in every type of production, there are many ways of covering dance 
on film and television. There are tried and trusted basic conventions 
and there are innovations and visual experiments that reject and 
oppose the foUowing generalizations about dance composition. As 
was said in another context, an orgy of self-expression can sometimes 
be no more productive than the blind obedience of rules. The follow- 
ing observations are offered as a basis for development. 

Dance features the whole figure and therefore the majority of shots 
will include the whole figure. The dance 'shape' can be emphasized by 
keeping the camera low and therefore reducing the amount of floor in 
shot and emphasizing the figure in relationship to the backing. 

Let the dancers move within the frame. Be wide enough for the 
dancers to make their own shapes within the frame. Avoid constant 
panning to keep the dancer within the frame. The fidgety background 
will work against the dancer's movement and keeping the dancer in 
centre frame while they are moving can work against the intentions of 
the choreographer. 

246 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

If the dance movement is interpreted by camera movement, there 
could be a confusion of choreographic design unless there is coUabora- 
tion with the choreographer. Spins and twirls can be extended by 
mixing between shots, which enhances the intended movement of the 
dancer. If possible, let the dancer choreograph to the frame. Show 
them the amount of studio floor space in shot and let the choreogra- 
pher work out how they can best use this space. 

Use a low-angled camera if the dancers are moving across frame. 
Use a high-angled camera if they are moving away or towards camera. 
Use a wide-angle to enhance speed of movement to and from camera. 
Use a narrow-angle to collapse space and movement. Use a close-up 
cut-in to disclose details of movement, to increase or express excite- 
ment in the dance. Devise shot-size to allow cuts on movement and 


One aspect of the composition of a shot is to consider how it wiU relate 
to the preceding and succeeding shots. There must be a reason in 
editing to change shot and the cameraman has to provide a diversity 
of material to provide a cutting point. Edit-point requirements such as 
change in angle and shot size, subject movement, camera movement 
and continuity have to be considered and provided for to enable the 
footage to be assembled in a coherent stream of images. Shooting with 
editing in mind is therefore essential. It is part of the cameraman's 
craft to provide the editor/presenter with a variety of options but to 
keep the shooting ratio in proportion to the editing time available. 

The narrative 'weight' of a shot is dependent on the size of the 
shot and also on the composition. Emphasis can be strengthened or 
lightened depending on the reason for the shot. 

A good cut needs a change in shot size or significant change in 
content to be invisible. 


It is natural, when training for a craft or a new skill, to search for 
underlying rules and guidelines - to look for certainties in order to 
master and to measure the amount of progress achieved. 

Camerawork is basically a craft but with its top practitioners it 
shades into a highly original, creative activity. Between learning by 
rote and the wilder excesses of individual subjective expression, a 
balance has to be struck between the dogma of 'always do it this 
way' and the anarchy of 'I don't quite know what I am trying to 
achieve, but out of this creative muddle new, original work will 
materialize. 1 hope!'. 

This book has discussed the constituent parts of composition. From 
the theory of perception to the inherited values of previous 'visual 
problem' solvers there is a wide range of advice and opinion on how 
to achieve good communication. Composition is central to this process 
and touches nearly all aspects of film and television production. To 
rewrite Marshall McLuans' media catch-phrase - the image is fre- 
quently the message. 

What has not been discussed so far, is the part played by individual 
innovation in the act of framing up a shot. The imaginative leap made 
in the early days of film making when cameramen and directors 
devised and invented new visual ways of telling a story has been con- 
tinuously expanded and added to by many cameramen following in 
their footsteps. 

The television pioneers faced similar challenges with the need to 
adapt and develop multi-camera technique. The unpredictability of 
the early electronic camera created a demand for reliability and cer- 
tainty. The engineering quest was for equipment of high specification 
coupled with a cost-effective Hfe before being superseded by the next 

Cameramen also have a keen interest in rehable equipment but 
frequently need to add another ingredient to the mixture. Good cam- 
erawork, as well as requiring a technique that guarantees a quality 
product, also, at times, involves taking risks. There are occasions 
when no previous experience or guidehnes can help in resolving a 
particular visual problem. 

248 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

In live television camerawork, operational decisions have to be 
made in seconds. The cameraman chances his arm and goes with 
what he feels is the relevant action. If he/she is right, then the result 
on screen is so obvious, that a viewer is not even aware that a split 
second decision has been made. If he/she is wrong, the same viewer 
may be critical of the blunder. These visual decisions are made in 
seconds. The critic of these activities frequently have days, weeks or 
even months to make their own crucial decisions - and they can still 
get them wrong! 

Cameramen have to live with uncertainty. It is part of the job. The 
programme may not be as good as they hoped, the film does not quite 
come off, etc., but stepping into the unknown - risk taking - is part of 
the everyday activity faced by production crews. There can never 
be absolute certainties about TV and film production technique and 
frequently, the new and the original are resisted until they achieve 
critical or financial endorsement. 

Innovation, original work, is often the product of maverick think- 
ing. A particular craft technique continues to be practised until some- 
one demonstrates that it is based on unexamined assumptions. There 
are other ways of doing it. 

It may have been imphed in this discussion on composition that 
there is a clear, unequivocal method of work, but the creative urge 
to experiment, to try something different is as valuable as the need to 
have knowledge about the bricks and mortar of camerawork. Usually, 
innovation only succeeds if it takes off from an established craft skiU. 
Genius is a commodity that is always in short supply. 

The abihty to create interesting and arresting compositions Ues at 
the heart of the cameraman's expertise. The range and variety of out- 
standing camerawork testifies to the individuality present in the prac- 
tice of the craft of camerawork. It would seem presumptuous to 
attempt to lay out principles and guidelines that would embrace 
such a diversity of practice. Technique changes too rapidly to attempt 
to set a discussion on composition in 'tablets of stone'. 

Perhaps an eminent writer on the subject, Sir Charles Holmes (Notes 
on the Science of Picture Making), should have the last word: 

It cannot be too definitely stated at the outset that a knowledge of principles is 
no substitute for invention. Principles themselves cannot create a work of art. 
They can only modify and perfect the vague pictorial conception formed in the 
artist's mind, which are the foundation upon which he builds. 


Arnheim, Rudolph, Art and Visual Perception. Faber & Faber, 

London, 1967. 
Barthes, Roland, Mythologies. Jonathan Cape, London, 1972. 
Bell, Martin, The Widescreen Book. BBC Resources & BBC 

Broadcast, London, 1998. 
Belton, John, Widescreen Cinema. Harvard University Press, 

Cambridge, MA, 1992. 
Bordwell, David, Narration in the Fiction Film. Routledge, London, 

Bordwell, David, On the History of Film Style. Harvard University 

Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997. 
Bradley, D.R. and Perry, H.M., Organisational determinants of sub- 
jective contours, American Journal of Psychology, 90, 253-62, 1977. 
Cook, David, A History of Narrative Film. W.W. Norton, New York, 

Cook, Pam, The Cinema Book. The British Film Institute, 1995. 
Crowther, Bruce, Film Noir. W.H. Allen & Co., London, 1988. 
Dancyger, Ken, The Technique of Film and Video Editing. Focal Press, 

Oxford, 1997. 
Gardiner, Paul, Evolution of Wide Screen Broadcasting in the United 

Kingdom. ITC, London, 1999. 
Gombrich, E.H., Art and Illusion. Phaidon Press, London, 1960. 
Gombrich, E.H., The Image and the Eye. Phaidon Press, London, 

Gregory, R.L, Eye and Brain. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 

Hill, J. and Gibson, P.C., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford 

University Press, Oxford, 1998. 
Holmes, Sir Charles, Notes on the Science of Picture Making. 
Itten, Johannes, The Art of Colour. Reinhold, New York, 1962. 
Kepes, Gyorgy, Language of Vision. Paul Theobald & Co., Chicago, 

Mascelh, Joseph, The Five C's of Cinematography. Silman-James 

Press, Los Angeles, 1965. 

250 Picture Composition for Film and Television 

Monaco, James, How to Read a Film. Oxford University Press, New 

York, 1981. 
Neale, S. and Smitli, M., Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. 

Routledge, London, 1998. 
Phillips, William, Film. Bedford, St Martins, Boston, 1999. 
Poynton, Charles, The Current State of High Definition Television,, 1989. 
Pudovkin, V.I., Film Technique and Film Acting. Lear Publishing Inc., 

New York, 1939. 
Reisz, K. and Millar, G., Technique of Film Editing. Focal Press, 

Oxford, 1999. 
Rogers, Pauline, Contemporary Cinematographers on their Art. Focal 

Press, Oxford, 1998. 
Salt, Barry, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis. 

Starword, London, 1983. 
Scharf, Aaron, Art and Photography. The Penguin Press, London, 

Ward, Peter, Digital Camerawork. Focal Press, Oxford, 2000. 
Ward, Peter, Basic Betacam Camerawork, 3rd edition. Focal Press, 

Oxford, 2001. 
Ward, P., Bermingham, A. and Wherry, C, Multiskilling for Television 

Production. Focal Press, Oxford, 2000. 


Note: Paintings are in italics and films are in single 

'A Bout de Souffle' ('Breathless'), 17 
Abstraction, 76-7 

in photography, 128 
Academy Flat, 96 
Academy ratio (4:3, 1.33:1), 90, 93 

composition blocking, 107 

inserting 4:3 material into 16:9 production, 118-19 

sound affecting, 93-4 

of standard TV screen, 90, 97, 108 
widescreen film and, 108-10, 112-14, 121, 206 

on widescreen TV, 118 

camera movement matched to, 203^ 

camera surprised by, 160-1 

continuity, see Continuity 

in early photographs, 124-5, 195-6 

live, see Live action 

rhythm of, see Rhythm 

staging, see Staging, action 

see also Movement 
Active format descriptor, 117-18 
Actors, see People 

Actuality programming, see Live action 
Additive colour system, 187 
Advanced TV (ATV), 99 
Alberti, Leon, 9-10, 43 
Almendros, Nestor, 192 
Altman's 'Short Cuts', 142-3 
Alton, John, 169-70 
America (USA): 

American Society of Cinematographers, widescreen 
TV aspect ratios and, 100, 101 

documentary film makers in 1960s, 137 

American Society of Cinematographers, widescreen TV 

aspect ratios and, 100, 101 
Analogue TV system, changeover to digital, 99, 104, 117 
Analytical editing, 242 
Anamorphic facility on widescreen TV, 118 
Anamorphic lenses and Anamorphic Scope, 96, 106 
Ancient history /civilizations, 123^ 

golden rectangle, 102-3, 124 
Angle (camera), 57 
Angle (lens), 37, 47, 57 
angle of view, 38 
choice, 47, 47-9, 50-2 

style and, 50-2, 145-6 
'correct' perspective and, 48 
high, see High angle 
narrow, see Narrow angle 
speed of actor movement and, 211-12 
TV camera, 153^ 
wide, see Wide angle 
zoom lens, 39 
Antonioni, Michelangelo, 85 
'Chung Kuo Cina', 23 
'II desert Rosso', 165 
Aperture, 38, 39 
Art house (avant-garde) film/film makers, 19, 21, 22, 23, 

Artistes, see People 
Aspect ratios, 58, 87, 90-105 

conversion (in widescreen TV and HDTV), 113-14, 
4:3 material inserted into 16:9 frame, 118-19 
by receiver, 117-18 
historical perspectives, 90-105 
production (recorded) and presentation screen 
(display) mismatch, 90, 108 
dealing with, 108-10, 112-19 



Aspect ratios (cont.) 
TV, 96-8 

widescreen, see subheading below 
widescreen film, see Widescreen film 
widescreen TV and HDTV, 98, 99-104, 112-22 
compromises between competing ratios, 101-2 
conversion, see subheading above 
see also specific aspect ratios 
Association, reference by, 78 
Astaire, Fred, in 'Top Hat', 61 
Atmosphere, creating, 81-2 
Attention (and interest), 74-5, 80-1 
and blindness to change, 34 
divided, 66, 88, 88-9 

news/factual programming, 88-9, 197-8 
drawing/attracting and holding: 
by editing, 221-2, 243 
by lighting, 173 

to main subject, 58-9, 63, 64-5, 74-5, 80-1 
in news/documentaries, 140 
by teasing/puzzling audience, 243 
dynamic balance providing, 63 
perception and, 33^ 
switching centre of, 80-1 
Audio, see Sound 
Authenticity, see Realism 
Avant-garde film/film makers, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24 

Background, 198 

control, 198 

crabbing to follow another actor moving in, 212 

defocused, 40, 41, 164-5 

matching between shots, 239^0 

see also Figure and ground 
'Bad Day at Black Rock', 108 
Balance (in composition), 62-6 

ambiguity and, 63 

with colour, 191 

dynamic, 63^ 

formal, 64-5 

resolution of, 62-3 

see also Colour, balance; White balance 
Bandwidth (TV picture), 97 

HDTV, 98 
'Batman' (1989), 87 
BBC, aspect ratio changes, 97-8 
Beatles films, 159 
Beauty, line of, 71 
Belief and disbelief, 161-2 
The Betrothal of the Arnolfini, 178 
Big close-up, 152, 153 
Black, John Alton and, 169-70 
Black-and-white medium, see Monochrome 
Blue, coldness, 192 
Boom in shot, 1 10 
Border, see Frame 
Bounced hght, 181 

filling in gaps in information, 34-5 

perception and, see Perception 

see also Mind 
'Breathless' ('A Bout de Souffle'), 17 
Brecht, Bertold, 18 

gradations in, 169-70 

relative, 36 
British Broadcasting Corporation, aspect ratio changes, 

Buiiuers 'Un Chien Andalou', 23 

Camcorder style, 162-3 
angle, 57 

canted (Dutch tilt), 87, 149 
CCD, see CCD cameras 
'crossing the line', 6, 230 
distance from object, see Distance 
height, 58 
lens, see Lens 

movement, 6, 11, 56, 147, 202-16 
accentuating effect of, 212-14 
constant movement (e.g. in NYPD Blue), 24, 

functional movement, 205 
historical aspects, 4-5, 6 
interpretive movement, 205 
invisible movement, 203-8 
maintaining good composition during, 214-15 
obtrusive movement, 204 
repetition setting up visual rhythm, 72-3 
single and multi-camera movement, 204-5 
uncertainty/unsteadiness expressed by, 159-60 
zooming and, 154 
see also Pan 
multiple, see Multi-camera production 
portable/hand-held, 154-5, 215 

reahsm and, 160-1 
position/placement, see Position 
remotely controlled, 215 
static viewpoint, 84-5 

and moving subject, 210 
surprised by action, 160-1 
surveillance, 135-6 
tilt, see Tilt 

TV, see Television cameras 
see also Video camera 
Camerawork, standard conventions, 24-5 
historical aspects, 5-7 
why people dislike rejection of, 22 
Camouflage, 68 

Canted camera (Dutch tflt), 87, 149 
'Casablanca', 52 

colourized, 113, 121 
Caulfield's Ojfice Party, 111 
CCD (charged coupled device) cameras, 185 

increased sensitivity, 182 
Celebrities, see Stars 
Change, blindness to, 34 



Charged coupled device, see CCD 
Charismatic artistes, see Stars 
Chiaroscuro, 177-9 
'Chien Andalou', 'Un', 23 
Choreography, 245-6 
'Chung Kuo Cina', 23 

early, 3^ 

home, widescreen stereo TV promoted as, 104 

multiplexes, 1 10 

widescreen, see Widescreen film 

see also Film 
Cinemascope, 94, 95-6, 106, 120 
Cinemascope 55, 96 
Cinematographer attitudes: 

to widescreen film pan and scan for TV, 109 

to widescreen TV aspect ratios, 100, 101 
Cinerama, 91, 94-5, 101, 104 
'Citizen Kane', 2, 146 
Cliched visual metaphor, 231-2 
Close shot/close-up shot, 80, 145-6, 152, 153, 234 

actor movement in, 211-12 

big(BCU), 152, 153 

factual information, 225, 234 

medium, see Medium close-up shot 

on widescreen TV, 1 1 5 
Closed frame technique, 85, 89 
Closure, similarity by, 61 
'Cold/warm' colours, 192 
Colour, 186-93 

balance, altering, 188 

composition and, 191-2 

correction, 187-8 

defocused blobs of, 164-5 

eye and perception of, see Eye; Perception 

grouping by similarity of, 61 

matching between shots, 239^0 

monochrome viewfinders and, 189-91 

post-production changes, 188 

as subject, 188 

symbohsm, 192-3 

temperature, 187 

see also specific colours 
Colour TV, 186 

lenses, 154 
Colour viewfinders, 189 
Colourized films, 113 

'Casablanca', 113, 121 
Comment and opinion, separating comment from, 132, 

Communication, see Visual communication 
Composition, 10-12 

aims in, 54-5 

colour and, 191-2 

control, 14-15, 57-9 

dance and, 245-6 

definition, 10-11 

frame influencing, 83 

importance, 13-14 

intuition in, 12-13 

lighting in, see Light 

styles, see Styles 

unbalanced, and non-composition, 54 

zooming and, 214-15 
Content, 41 

panning speed matched to, 206-7 

style becoming, 143 
Contiguity editing, 242 
Continuity (in editing), 220, 241 

factual programming, 226, 229-30 
Contrast, 170 

harmony and, 175 

high, 170, 174 

monochrome viewfinders and, 190 
Convention, 24-5 
Convergence of lines, 42, 47-8, 48, 63, 71 

towards horizon, see Vanishing point 
Costs in TV: 

fighting, 184 

multi-camera TV, 151 
Costume drama, 165-6 
Coutard, Raoul, 181 
Crabbing, 208 

to follow background movement of another actor, 212 
'Crossing the fine', 6, 230 
Cultural influences, 15 
Current affairs, see News 
Curves, 71-2 

Customary techniques in TV, 155 
Cut, jump, 17-18 
Cutaway, 231 

and temporal relationships between shots, 239 
Cut-in, 231 
Cutting, see Editing 

Dance, 245-6 

Darkness, 169-70, 180-1, 192 

'Days of Heaven', 192-3 

Decorative shots (news), 226 

Defocused backgrounds, 40, 41, 164-5 


accentuating/emphasizing/creating, 52-3, 81 

indicators, 36^1 
limited, 86 
reducing/eliminating, 76-7 

perception of, 46 

perspective, 29 

in widescreen film, 106 
Depth-of-field, 38, 58, 146-7 

style and, 146-7 

TV picture, 153 
Descriptive sequence, 223-4 
'II Desert Rosso', 165 
Development shots, 208-12 

overlong, 231 
Diagonal line, 71 
Dickson, W.K.L., 93, 103 



Diflfused light, 176, 183 
Digital TV service: 

changeover from analogue, 99, 104, 117 

widescreen aspect ratio, 99 
Direct Cinema, 137 

indicators of, 75, 241 

of lighting, 172 
Disbelief, 161-2 
Disposable two-shot, 109 
Dissonance, 65-6 

estimating, 52 

lines converging into, see Vanishing point 

from object/subject (of observer or camera), 37, 38, 
46-7, 57-8 
choice, 47, 47-9 
size and, 28, 46, 47 

see also Minimum object distance 
Distortion on widescreen TV, 119-20 

progressive, 118 
Divine proportion (golden rectangle), 93, 102-3, 124 
'Dr Strangelove', 161 
Documentary, 136-8, 156, 157 

professionahsm and, 138-9 

storytelling techniques, 222 

see also Factual programming; Interviews; News 
Docusoaps, 157 

radio, having best 'pictures', 57 


authentic period costume, 165-6 
multi-camera, 151 
soaps, 151 
'Drifters', 136 
Durieu, Eugene, 174 
Dutch tilt, 87, 149 
Dynamic balance, 63^ 

Editing, 217-50 

basic conventions/techniques/principles, 218-20, 

historical aspects, 5 

multi-camera production, 243-5 

shooting for, 217-50 
basic advice, 225-32 

types, 242 

viewfinder as tool for, 91-2 
8° lens, 153 

Electronic news gathering (ENG) crews, 138 
Electronic viewfinder, see Viewfinder 
'Empire', 19-20 
Entrances, cutting on, 236 
Exits, cutting on, 236 
Explanatory sequence, 224 
Exposure, 170-1 
Expressionism, 180-1 

colour and the, 186, 187 

warmness/coldness of, 192 
lens of, 26, 27-8 
lens of camera at level of, 44 
movements (within frame/image), 14, 78-80 

left-to-right, in Western art, 66, 79-80 

taken it for a 'walk', 78-9 
patterns grasped easily by/pleasing to, 54-5 
as slave of attention system, 34-5 
see also entries under Visual 
Eye line match (in editing), 241 

Fact (the record): 

fiction and, 22-5, 131-2 

separating opinion or comment from, 132, 134 
Factual programming, editing, 218, 222-32 

shot variety, 227-32 

see also Documentary; Interviews; News 
Factual style, see Realism 
Fantasy and imagination, 20, 132 
Fashion, changing nature, 15-16 
Fechner, Gustav, 103 
Fiction, fact and, 22-5, 131-2 
55° angle on TV zoom lenses, 153 
Figure and ground (background), 66-8 

controlhng relationship, 67-8 

flip, 67 

separation, 31 

see also People 

35mm, see 35mm film 

advantages over TV widescreen, 1 1 6 

colourizing, 113 

sensitivity, 147 

widescreen, see Widescreen film 

see also Cinema 
Film Noire, 169-70, 180-1 
Film shot, see Shot 
Film-making, historical aspects, 1-16 
Filters, 149 

colour correction, 187-8 
5° angle on TV zoom lens, 153 
Five-second module, 231 
Flaherty, Robert, 136 
Flare, 149 

'Fly-on-the-wair technique, 140, 156 
/no, 38, 39 
Focal length, 38, 39 


defocused backgrounds, 164-5 
space and use of, 50 

style and, 145-6 

zoom lens, 39 
Focus, 40-1, 58 

art of focusing, 40 

differential, 41 

follow, 40 

pulling, 40 

zoom lens, 40 



Ford, John: 

editing and, 221 

'Stagecoacti', 1, 6, 81 

'The Searchers', 88 
Foreground, masking, 87 
Form, 13, 41, 76 

contrast of, 63 

see also Shape 
Formal balance, 64-5 
4:3 rectangle, see Academy ratio 
14:9 aspect ratio, 113, 114 

4:3 frame expanded to, 118 

zooming and, 116-17 
Frame(s) (and framing), 9-10, 11, 58, 83-9 

closed vs open frame technique, 85, 89 

edge, 88 

as reference, 87 

eye movement within frame, see Eye 

frames within frames, 87-9 
newsreading, 88-9, 197-8 

hard cut-off point, 85-6 

height in frame, 36 

individual innovation in framing, 247-8 

influence on composition, 83 

leaving, 230-1 

in photographs, 124-5 

safeguarding top of frame, 110-11 

'shoot and protect' framing policy, 114 

subject size and, 80 

see also Freeze frame 
France, documentaries, 137 
Francesa, Pierro della, 10 
Freeze frame, 125, 130, 149 
French documentary film makers, 137 
Front surface design, 81 

in frame, 36 
'Help', 159 
High angle: 

photographs at, 129 

shots made at, 61, 76 
High contrast, 170, 174 
High definition TV (HDTV), 98-9, 100, 103 

bandwidth, 97 

early development, 98-9 

see also Widescreen TV 
Historical aspects, 123-30 

aspect ratios, 90-105 

invisible technique, 1-16, 129 

fighting, 177-82 

style, 167 
Hitchcock, Alfred: 

editing and, 221 

'Vertigo', 48-9, 210 
Hogarth, William: 

fine of beauty, 71 

Rakes Progress, 3 
Hofiday videos, 162-3 

camera at eye level, 44 

editing in golden age of, 221 

narrative convention, 86 
Home cinema, widescreen stereo TV promoted as, 104 
'Un Homme et une femme', 165 
Horizon (and horizon line), 43-4 

lines converging towards, see Vanishing point 
Horizontal lines, 42, 43 
'Hot' colours, 192 
Hot fieads, 215 
Hue, 191 
180° system, 6 

Genre, 155-66 

Gestalt theories of perception, 30, 69 

Goddard's 'Breathless' ('A Bout de Souffle'), 17, 181 

'The Godfather', 196 

Golden rectangle/section/ratio, 93, 102-3 

'Great Train Robbery' (1903), 4 

Greeks, ancient, 123-4 

golden rectangle, 102-3, 124 
Grierson, John, 156 

'Drifters', 136 
Ground, see Background; Figure and ground; 

Grouping visual elements, 59-61 

by shape, 69-70 

Hafi, Conrad, 196 

Hand-held cameras, see Cameras 

'A Hard Days Night', 159 

Harmony and contrast, 175 


camera/lens, 37, 43-6, 58 

eye level, 44 

tracking and, 208, 214-15 

'II Desert Rosso', 165 
Illumination, 174 

see also Ligfit 
lUusion, 18-19, 43, 132-3 

eye moving around, see Eye 

idea expressed through, 184-5 

size, constancy, 28-30 

understanding an, 77-8 

see also Shot 
Imagination and fantasy, 20, 132 
Improved definition TV (IDTV), 99 
'In Cold Blood', 196 
Informative shots (news), 226 
Intercutting, 6, 7, 232, 242 
Interest, see Attention 
Interviews, 198, 232-3 

cutting, 233 

16:9 shape and, 115-16 

'Vox Pops', 233, 237 
Intuition, 12-13 
Invisible technique: 

alternatives to/rejection of, 17-25 



Invisible technique {cont.) 

camera movement and, 203 

creation, 4-5 

development, 1-16, 129 

editing, 217-18, 220 

lighting and, 173-4 
Isolated ('iso') feeds, 244 

'Jaws', 210 
'JFK', 161 
Jump cuts, 17- 


Kell factor, 97 

'The Killers', 180 

Kubrick's 'Dr Strangelove', 161 

Kurasawa, Akira, 146 

Landscape format, 87 
'The Last Emperor', 192 
The Last Supper, 47, 50 
'Lawrence of Arabia', 107 
LCD viewfinders, colour, 189 
Lead-in lines, curved, 72 
Lean, David: 

'Lawrence of Arabia', 107 

'Ryan's daughter', 64 
Left-to-right, eye moving/scanning from, in Western art, 

66, 79-80 
Lelouche, Claude, 'Un homme et une femme', 165 
Lens (camera), 26-53 

angle, see Angle 

choice, 145 

focal length, see Focal length 

focus, see Focus 

height, see Height 

imprint, 27 

perspective and, 26-53 

position, see Position 

production style and, 50-2, 145-6 

TV camera, see Television camera 
Lens (human eye), 26, 27-8 
Lens (projector), in multiplexes, 110 
Leonardo da Vinci: 

golden rectangle, 102-3 

The Last Supper, 47, 50 
Lester, Richard, 159 
Letterboxing, widescreen TV, 112-13 
Light (and lighting), 168-85 

bounced, 181 

controlled, 179, 182 

dark/hght relationships, 169-70, 180-1, 192 

decorative, 185 

diffused, 176, 183 

direction, 172 

emphasis with, 173 

hard, 171, 176 

invisible, 173^ 

natural/available/found, 172, 180, 182-3 

see also Sunlight 

past influences, 177-82 

quahty, 171-2 

soft, 171, 172, 176, 181-2 

source, 172 

TV, 183-5 
Line(s), 70-2 

of beauty, 71 

convergence of, see Convergence; Vanishing point 

crossing the, 6, 230 

curved, 71-2 

horizontal, 42, 43 
see also Horizon 

lead-in, 72 

leaning/diagonal, 71 

panning on, 206 

perspective of, see Perspective 

structural skeleton, influences on, 42 

tracking, finding right, 208 

in TV picture, 97 
HDTV, 98 

vertical, 70 
Linear perspective, see Perspective 
Liquid crystal display viewfinders, colour, 189 
Live action (inch TV): 

camera movement, 204, 205 

multi-camera, 149-53, 200, 201, 204, 205 

sports events, see Sports coverage 

working at speed, 200-1, 248 
Location shooting, 148 
Long shot (distance), 152 

factual information, 234 
Looking room, 244, 245 
Low- tech styhsts, 163 
Lumet's 'Twelve Angry Men', 21 
Lumiere brothers, 2, 20, 23 

factual style/realism, 20, 132 

Magic (and magicians), 18-19 

see also Illusion 
Magic lantern, 3 

'The Man who knew too much', 64 
The Martyrdom of San Sebastian, 176 

foreground, 87 

widescreen film, 107 

balance by, 62 

perspective of, see Size, relationships 
Medium close-up shot (MCU), 66, 152, 153 

on widescreen TV, 115 

panned and scanned widescreen shot turned into 
MCU, 109 
'Medium Cool', 162 
Medium shot, 152, 153 
Melies, Georges, 3, 20, 132 
Metaphor, cliched visual, 231-2 
Mind (visual information and the), 3 1 

patterns grasped easily by mind, 54-5 



Minimum object distance, 146 
Mirror reverse/stage left, 66-7 
Monochrome, 86, 189-91 

photography, 128 

TV, legacy, 189 

viewfinders, see Viewfinder 
Mood, creating, 81-2 
Morris, Errol, 'The Thin Blue Line', 156 
Motion parallax, 36 
Movement, 55-6, 202-16 

blocking/plotting, see Staging, action 

of camera, see Camera 

of eye, see Eye 

invisible, 203-8 

of patterns, 73 

of subject/object/action, 55, 56 
cutting, 234-6 
moving camera and, 210-11 
static camera and, 210 

synchronized, 203-4 

visual elements providing strong sense of, 75 

see also Action; Motion parallax; Slow-motion 
Moving photograph, early moving image as, 2-3 
MTV style, 157-8 
Multi-camera production (incl. TV), 129, 149-53, 243-5 

camera movement, 204-5, 205-6 

customary techniques, 155 

editing, 243-5 

lighting, 174-5, 180 

live, 149-53, 200, 201, 204, 205 

teamwork, 244-5 
Multiplexes, 110 
Music videos, 63, 157-8, 204 

editing, 220 

see also Documentary; Fact; Factual programming; 
NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai), 98, 100, 103 
'Night of the Hunter', 52 
Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), 98, 100, 103 
Non-composition, 54 
Notan, 179 
NYPD Blue, 24, 159-60 

Object(s) and subjects: 

colour as subject matter, 188 

distance from, see Distance 

drawing/holding attention to main subject, 58-9, 63, 
64-5, 74-5 

grouping, see Grouping 

movement, see Movement 

organization, 59-61 

shape, see Shape 

size, see Size 

see also People 
Objectivity in news, 133, 227 

reahsm and, 135 
Oblique angle shot, 48 
Office Party, 177 

On-the-shoulder camerawork, 160 
180° system, 6 

1.33:1 rectangle, see Academy ratio 
Open frame convention, 85, 89 
Opinion and comment, separating comment from, 132, 

Organization, 59-61 
Oval forms/shapes, 69 
Over-lhe-shoulder two shot, 15, 152 

widescreen TV and, 115 
Overlap, 36 
Ozu's 'Tokyo Story', 24, 143 

'Napoleon' (1927), 93 

Narrative presentation, see Storytelling 

Narrow angle effect, 46 

Narrow-angle lenses, camera movement with, 212 

Natural/found light, 172, 180, 182-3 

see also Sunlight 
News/current affairs (and newsreading), 131-41, 197-: 

editing, 222-7 
in the field, 218 

five-second module, 231 

frame within frame and divided interest, 88-9, 197- 

interviews, see Interviews 

objectivity, see Objectivity 

operational awareness, 134-5 

portable cameras, 154-5 

professionahsm, 138-9 

staging, 197-8 

storytelling technique, 222-5 

unscripted items/shots, 232 
structure, 225-7 

values, 227 


mid-to-late 19th/early 20th Century, influences of, 

photograph in style of painting, 124, 195-6 

in style of photograph, 128-9 
Pan (panning shots), 42, 206-7 

historical aspects, 4-5, 5 

length of, 231 

NYPD Blue, 159-60 

whip pan, 149 
Pan and scan device for widescreen film, 108-9, 121, 206 
Pan/tilt head, remotely controlled, 215 
Pana vision, 96, 106 
Parallel horizontal lines receding into distance, see 

Vanishing point 
Paramount's VistaVision, 95 
Patterns (structural), 73^, 76, 81 

creating and controlling, 73^ 

definition, 72, 73 

grasped easily by eye and mind, 54-5 

static and moving, 73 
People/figures (incl. actors/artistes): 



People/figures (incl. actors/artistes) (cont.) 

charismatic, see Stars 

composition, 199 
multi-figure, 199 
single figure, 199 
two figure, 199 

cutting on exits and entrances, 236 

interviews, see Interviews 

speed of movement of, and shot size and lens angle, 

staging, 147-8, 194-5, 197-8, 199 

see also Figure and ground 
Perception (visual), 27-8, 30-5, 170-1, 175 

abstraction in, 76-7 

attention and, 33^ 

characteristics, 30-5 

of colour, 186, 187 
cold/warm feel, 192 

of depth, 46 

frames and borders and, 83^ 

Gestalt theories, 30, 69 

problems with, 32-3 

recognition in, 31-2, 76 

shot transition and, 236-7 

16:9 aspect ratio and, 100-1 

size constancy, 28-30 

steps in, 31-2 
Period costume drama, 165-6 

Personal significance of shot attracting attention, 74-5 
Perspective, 29-30, 36-53 

lens and, 36-53 

limited indicators, 86 

linear/of fine, 36, 42-3, 48 
laws, 30 

of mass, see Size, relationships 

'normal/correct', 48 

'wrong/incorrect', 48 
'Le Petit Soldat', 181 

early, 124-5, 195-6 

early moving image as moving photograph, 2-3 

influences of, 124-5, 126-8 

painting in style of photograph, 128-9 

photograph in style of painting, 124, 195-6 

two-dimensional image, 8-9 
Pierro della Francesa, 10 
Pivot points, 62, 207-8, 208 
Point-of-view shots, 242 
Polanski's 'Rosemary's Baby', 16 
Pollaiuolo's The Martyrdom of San Sebastian, 176 
Pop music videos, see Music videos 
Portable cameras, see Cameras 
Portable field editing, 218 

Porter, Edwin S, 'Great Train Robbery' (1903), 4 
Portrait format, 87 

camera/lens, 6, 9 

degree of convergence and, 42 
emphasizing main subject, 59 

factors determined by, 57-8 

height, see Height 

stopping before/restarting after respositioning, 
historical aspects, 5 

style and, 145 
contrast of, 63 
Powers, Dr Kerns, 101-2 
Production style, see Style 
Profanation of the Host, Til, 46 
Professionalism, news/documentary-making, 138-9 
Projector lenses in multiplexes, 110 
'Protect and save' framing policy, 1 14 
Proximity (of subjects/objects), 76 

grouping by, 60-1 
Pulsed zooms, 149 
Punk TV style, 164 

Radio drama having best 'pictures', 57 

Rakes Progress, 3 

Realism (authenticity; factual style; realistic 

representation), 8, 20, 21, 132, 135-6, 159-62 

in early photography, 216-17 

lighting and, 180, 181-2, 182 
natural, 182 

low-tech style and, 163 

Lumiere's, 20, 132 

news and, 132, 133, 135-6 

period costume drama, 165-6 

technology, 136 

uncertainty/unsteadiness and, 159-62 
Rembrandt van Rijn, 178, 178-9 
Recognition (in perception), 3 1-2, 76 
Record of event, see Fact 

golden, 93, 102-3 

screen shape, see Shape 
Red, 'hotness', 192 
Reed, Carol, 'The Third Man', 87 
Remotely controlled cameras, 215 
Renaissance period, 123-4 
Rhythm, visual, 72-3 

matching between shots, 238 
Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will', 45 
'Rosemary's Baby', 16 
Rotha, Paul, 136 
Rule of Thirds, 46, 124 
'Ryan's daughter', 64 

Saccades, 78 
Saturation (colour), 191 
Scale, 75-6 

see also Size 

shape of, see Aspect ratio; Shape 

size (TV), see Size (TV screen) 
'The Searchers', 88 
Secret filming, 136 
Sensitivity, film stock, 147 



Shadows, 171-2, 180 
Shape, 68-9 
repetition of same shape, pattern generated by, 74 
screen, 90-122 

composition and, 91 

widescreen, see Widescreen 

see also Aspect ratio 
see also Form 
'Shoot and protect' framing policy, 114 
'Short Cuts', 142-3 
angle of, see Angle 
appearance, 13 

asking questions about/does it work?, 12, 58-9 
boom in, 110 

changing/stitching together, historical aspects, 5 
close, see Close shot 
content, see Content 
continuity between, see Continuity 
decorative (news), 226 
depth, see Depth 

development shot, see Development shots 
disposable two-shot, 109 
for editing: 

basic techniques with, 218-20 

length/brevity, 228-9, 231, 233-41 

selection and structure/shape, 218, 220-2, 223-7 

significance and appropriateness, 228-9 

variety, 227-32 
form, see Form 
frame and framing, see Frame 
historical aspects, 4 
informative (news), 226 
obhque angle shot, 48 
over-the-shoulder two shot, see Over-the-shoulder 

two shot 
panning, see Pan 

personal significance attracting attention, 74-5 
point-of-view shot, 242 
rhythm, see Rhythm 
sizes, see Size 
space in a, see Space 
square-on shot, see Square-on shot 
structural skeleton, 41-3 
transition, perception and, 236-7 
unscripted, in news, see News 
visual design, see Visual design 
zooming and readjustment on, 39 
see also Image 
16° lens, TV camera, 153 
16:9 aspect ratio, 99-104, 112-22 
composing for, 115-16 
4:3 material inserted into, 118-19 
contrast of, 63 
relationships (perspective of mass), 29-30, 48, 75-6 

camera distance and, 28, 46, 47 

zooming and, 39, 46, 76, 214 
of shot/size of objects and subjects, 36 

changes in, moving camera during, 211 
constancy, 28-30 
duration of shot and, 234 
editing and, 230, 234, 242 
frame and, 80 
group by similarity in, 61 
multi-camera TV, 152-3 
relationships, see subheading above 
speed of actor movement and, 21 1-12 
of TV screen, 120-1 
camera viewfinder, 121 
Slow-motion replays, 200-1 
Smoke, 149 
Soap dramas, 151 

see also Docusoaps 
Sound, 56-7 
editing and, 243 

4:3 aspect ratio reduced with advent of, 93-4 
Space, 47-50, 238-9, 240-1 
compressing/rearranging, 239, 240-1 
controlling, 47-9 
creating 2D depiction of, 37-8 
internal, 49-50, 50, 212 

matching relationships between shots, 238-9, 241-2 

of actor movement, shot size and lens angle and, 

of panning, 206-7 

working at, with live action, 200-1, 248 
see also Tempo 
Spielberg's 'Jaws', 210 
Sports coverage, 166 

slow-motion replays, 200-1 
Square-on shot, 48 

square-on two shot, 62, 65 
'Stagecoach' (John Ford's), 1, 6, 81 
Staging, 194-201 

action (blocking movement), 195, 196, 197-8 
for multi-camera continuous coverage, 205 
people/artistes, 147-8, 194-5, 197-8, 199 
what is it?, 195-6 
Stars, film (charismatic/celebrity artistes), 24 

fighting, 179-80 
Static patterns, 73 

Static viewpoint of camera, see Camera 
Steadicam, 215 
Stereotypes, visual, 77-8 
Stone, Oliver, 'JFK', 161 
Storaro, Villorio, 192 

Storytelling (narrative presentation), 22-3, 170-1, 196 
alternative techniques, 17-25 
editing and, 221-5 
historical aspects, 3, 4, 6-7 
Hollywood convention, 86 
invisible technique of, see Invisible technique 
narrative sequence, 223 
visual weight and, 64 
see also Fiction 
Studio look (fighting), 179-80 



Studio shooting, 148 

Sturges, Jotin, 'Bad Day at Black Rock', 108 

Styles (of production/composition): 

building blocks, 143-8 

changing, 166 

flourishes, 148-9 

history, 167 

lens angle and, 50-2, 145-6 

music videos, see Music videos 

uncertainty/unsteadiness as, 159-62 
Subject, see Objects and subjects; People 
Subjective experiences, 20, 132 
Sunlight, 191 

see also Natural light 
Super 35mm, 110-11 
Surveillance cameras, 135-6 
Syntax (in editing), 242-3 

Teamwork, multi-camera production, 244-5 
Technological development; 

reahsm and, 136 

style and, 144-7 

advanced (ATV), 99 

aspect ratios, see Aspect ratios 

colour, see Colour TV 

high definition, see High definition TV 

improved definition (IDTV), 99 

lighting, 183-5 

live, see Live action 

monochrome, legacy, 189 

pan and scan conversion of widescreen films for, 
108-9, 121, 206 

viewers needs' and new forms of, 92 

widescreen film shown on, dealing with problem of, 
108-10, 112-19 
Television cameras, 129 

lenses, 153^ 
height, 44 
lens angle and focal length, 145 

multiple, see Multi-camera production 
Temperature, colour, 187 
Tempo (sequence), 200, 224, 242-3 
Temporal aspects, see Time 
Texture gradient, 36 
'The Thin Blue Line', 156 
'The Third Man', 87 
Thirds, Rule of, 46, 124 
30° system, 6 
35° lens, TV camera, 153 
35mm film: 

super, IIO-U 

as universal standard, 92-3 
Three-colour theory of perception, 187 
Three-dimensional image: 

2D image from, see Two-dimensional image 

compensating for loss of third dimension, 81 
Tilt (camera), 37, 42, 43, 58 

Dutch tih, 87 

see also Pan/tilt head 
Time (temporal aspects) in editing, 223, 239, 240-1 

matching relationships between shots, 239 

rearranging/compressing, 223, 239, 240-1 

shot lengths, 228-9, 231, 233^1 
Todd AO, 96 
'Tokyo Story', 24, 143 
Toland, Greg, 1, 25, 146 

contrast of, 63 

matching between shots, 239-40 
'Tootsie', 147 
'Top Hat', 61 

'A Touch of Evil', 45, 181, 210 
Tracking, 207-8, 208, 214-15 

camera/lens height for, 214-15 
finding right, 208 

line for, finding right, 208 

zooming and, 210 

composition distinction between, 214 
transition between, 209 
Triangular forms/shapes, 69 
Tripods, early use, 5 
'Triumph of the WiU', 45 
'Twelve Angry Men', 21 
Twentieth-Century Fox's CinemaScope, 94, 95-6, 106, 

24° lens, TV camera, 153 

Two-dimensional images (camera conversion from 3D 
images), 8-9, 41 

compensating for loss of third dimension, 8 1 

creating 2D depiction of space, 37-8 

perception and, 32-3 

in viewfinder, see Viewfinder 

Uccello's Profanation of the Host, 37, 46 
'Un Chien Andalou', 23 
Uncertainty as style, 159-62 
USA, see America 

Value (reflectivity), 191 
'Vampyr' (1976), 7 
Van Eyck, Jan, 178 

Vanishing point(s) (lines converging towards horizon), 
42, 47-8 

placement, 47-8 

two/three/multiple, 42-3 
Verite style, 156 
Vertical line, 70 
'Vertigo', 48-9, 210 
Video camera: 

amateur use, 162-3 

multi-camerawork, 152 

portable/hand-held, 154-5, 215 
realism and, 160-1 

zoom, 39 
Video diaries, 163 

Video format, international/universal, 92, 99 
Viewfinder (and its two-dimensional image), 86 



colour, 189 

as editing tool, 91-2 

limited depth and perspective indicators, 86 

monochrome (electronic), 86, 121, 189-91 
problems, 189-91 

zooming and widescreen working and, 116 
Vignettes, 149 
Vista Vision, 95 
Visual communication, 175 

control of/achieving, 175 
requirements, 14 
Visual design, 54-82 

matching between shots, 237-8 

techniques, 15, 59-61 
Visual metaphor, cliched, 231-2 
Visual perception, see Perception 
Visual puzzles, 158 
Visual rhythm, see Rhythm 
Visual stereotypes, 77-8 
Visual styles, see Styles 
Visual weight, 62-3 

narrative element and, 64 
'Vox Pops', 233, 237 

Wajda, Andrejz, 165 
Warhol's 'Empire', 19-20 
'Warm/cold' colours, 192 
Welles, Orson, 1 

'Citizen Kane', 2, 146 

'Touch of Evil', 45, 181, 210 
Wexler, Haskell, 'Medium Cool', 162 
Whip pan, 149 
White balance, 187 
Wide angle effect, 46 
Wide angle lenses and shots, 63-4 

actor movement in, 212 
Widescreen film/cinema (and its aspect ratios), 91, 93, 
94-6, 101, 104, 106-11 

advantages, 107-8, 116 

composition, 106-11 

pan and scan conversion, 108-9, 121, 206 
Widescreen TV, 92 

aspect ratio, see Aspect ratio 

compilation programmes on, 119 

composition, 112-22 

viewer control, 117-18 

viewer needs and, 92 

see also High definition TV 
Wildlife features, 156 
Wilhs, Gordon, 196 
Wipes, 149 

Zanuck, Darryl, and CinemaScope, 106 
Zoom (and zooming), 39-40, 207, 214 

in Hitchcock's 'Vertigo', 48-9 

pivot point and, 207, 208 

pulsed zooms, 149 

size and, 39, 46, 76, 214 

tracking and, see Tracking 

TV, 154-5 

introduction, 154-5 
widescreen, 116-17 

widescreen working and, 1 1 1 
TV, 116-17 

zoom lens angle, 39 

zoom lens extender system, 39-40 

zoom lens focusing, 40 

zoom ratio, 39 
Zukor, Adolph, 120 


Plate 1 A colour wheel showing 
the complementaries of the main 


to red 

Plates 2 and 3 A small saturated 
colour such as red against green 
has a greater impact than when it 
is placed against a lower 
illuminance colour such as blue 

Plate 4 Using a monochrome 
viewfinder the subject of the shot 
- a red flower against green 
foliage, almost disappears and the 
shot would be tightened in an 
effort to emphasize the flower 

Plate 5 The same shot displayed 
in colour provides sufficient 
separation between flower and 
background. The defocused 
orange aubretia creeping into the 
right of frame, unseen in a 
monochrome viewfinder, becomes 
more noticeable and could have 
been eliminated by camera 
repositioning or tightening on the 
red flower if the montbretia could 
have been seen in the viewfinder 

Plate 6 This vegetable pack shot 
framed up in monochrome is 
disorganized and messy because 
the colour component of the shot 
is unable to be utilized 

Plate 7 A tighter shot that relies 
on colour for its composition 
could be framed if the colour 
values were available in a colour 

Plate 8 Rembrandt's self portrait - 
as the Apostle St Paul. Courtesy of 
RIJKS Museum, 2002.